Babil Khan is not worried about being compared to his father, the late Irrfan Khan. Instead, he’s excited about continuing his father’s legacy of doing great films. “When I signed my first film (Qala) there were a few nerves initially because you think: ‘what if I fall flat?’”
And while he doesn’t care for the term ‘debut’, he’s excited to be in the Anvita Dutt directorial, Qala. Dutt’s Bulbbul, as many would remember, stood out for its scathing visual grammar – blood-red, dense, atmospheric. “Certainly, a film is not a radio play. The aesthetics of it had to be right. I wanted to capture the fantastical suspension of belief one has while listening to fairy tales,” Dutt said in a 2021 Grazia interview. Her choice of a fairy-tale aesthetic, which is essentially also the case in Qala, is to convey a more significant point about the horrors of patriarchy and self-indulgent men, which wouldn’t have probably come to a male director.
The Hindi-language film, produced by Karnesh Sharma’s Clean Slate Filmz, takes place between the 1930s and the 1940s. Tripti Dimri plays the titular singer, whose path to fame winds past an uncaring mother, questionable personal choices, and sexual predators. The principal cast includes Swastika Mukherjee as Qala’s mother, Khan as a singer who competes with Qala, and Amit Sial as a music composer. “Anvita paints a fantastical world that draws you in. It’s almost Shakespearean in that it makes you sit up and take notice of the characters. When people question why I chose to play a supporting part in my first film, I tell them that I wanted to support Tripti; I wanted to support a female lead. I am also doing this for my mother. She’s always silently supported my father and me,” he says.
For the 23-year-old, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, his first foray into acting, set a love for the arts in motion but not without a hitch. The play is one continuous “who’s on first?” gag that irreverently jounces around domestic unrest and dirty puns. This is probably the most workman of the plays Khan read by the hydrocephalic bard. However, the careful reader can still glean a few tentative peeps of the unique mastery of the English language that indisputably defines Shakespeare as an artist wholly unto himself. “You can imagine how nervous I was when I forgot the lines on stage. I was 12. I was in school, in the middle of an important scene. I decided to improvise in Hindi, which set in motion something completely unexpected – the audience could not get enough. Even though I made some real blunders, I looked into the crowd to see if my dad was smiling at the faux pas. He wasn’t in attendance. While it did disappoint me, I’ve learned to make peace with the idea that my dad loved his craft (he was shooting for a film at the time). But he loved me equally,” he says.
Khan is honest about his relationship with his father. No doubt it cannot reflect complete truth – who of us can always see all of ourselves and our loved ones? But whatever confusions, and perhaps a few self-protective instances of skewing the remembered personal behaviour towards a more exculpatory memory, Khan has no issues admitting that fatherhood for his late father, and manhood for that matter, was always a bit of a work in progress for him. “Even though none of us figured it out, dad readily admitted that he was constantly learning. You must understand that I grew up in a household where Tchaikovsky was appreciated alongside Jean-Luc Godard, so now you know where I get the intense brooding from. Blame it on my dad,” he says jokingly.
But is Khan looking to build a similar filmography as his father? No, comes the reply. “Why would I want to ape his wonderful journey? I want to build my clout – whether it be acting in an art-house or masala film, cinematography, or even behind the camera,
I love movies, so I will enjoy the medium regardless of how I engage with it,” he says.
From debating the morality of cinema at bedtime; celebrating weirdness; teaching lessons on respecting the opposite sex; sharing
the pleasure of watching art on screen; coping with the unsporty child in organised sports; supporting individuality – one theme Khan is increasingly becoming conscious of as a person – “and I know this probably sounds trite” – is the importance of celebrating individuals for being themselves. “My dad allowed me to have my own interests and aspirations. While other parents spend so much time and energy striving on behalf of their kids, my parents have always let their kid be who he wanted to be,” he says.