Beyond showbiz: Babil Khan explains what it would take to live up to father Irrfan Khan's legacy

From fashion to films, as the young actor starts his Bollywood journey, he talks about how his unconventional upbringing and father's teachings will be his guiding light going forward


Somya Mehta

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Published: Fri 13 Jan 2023, 9:58 PM

Last updated: Sat 14 Jan 2023, 10:50 AM

“If life gives you lemons, make tomato juice.” While this may seem implausible, it not only makes a quirky Instagram bio but also seems to be the mantra that Babil Khan swears by in his life. Conventions bore him, definitions are too trivial and societal boundaries seem obsolete to the 20-something-year-old Babil, who’s currently finding his feet as an actor in an industry that expects him to fill the void his father — late Irrfan Khan — left behind. “Baba’s legacy isn’t limited to being an actor. His greatest work was in humanity, in the effort of growing and evolving as a human being. If I’m working on myself as a human being and evolving through my consciousness, I think that will be a true marker of taking his legacy forward.” The rave reviews from a ‘mature’ performance in his debut film Qala mean that he may have already got a headstart in that direction.

Babil Khan with his Baba (father) — late Irrfan Khan, known as one of the finest actors of Indian cinema
Babil Khan with his Baba (father) — late Irrfan Khan, known as one of the finest actors of Indian cinema

“I never remember my birthday or my age. If you ask me, I’d take a few seconds to think,” says Babil, seated comfortably in a vintage newsboy cap and pastel purple jacket. “Definitions, dates, these are such limiting concepts of how you experience life,” adds the 24-year-old. While this may appear bizarre to the ‘normal’ world, it is a product of his unique upbringing. Result of a conscious decision by his parents, Babil completed the better part of his schooling from a Rudolf Steiner education system, Tridha, in Mumbai.

Journeying back to his formative years, Babil recalls, “My childhood was fragmented because I was not sent to a regular school. I was not allowed to touch a pen. I didn’t learn the alphabet till very late. Everyone around me was going to regular schools and I, on the other hand, was learning how to climb trees, make sandcastles and build tree houses.” Rudolf Steiner method of teaching (Waldorf Education) dates back to the ideas of the early 20th century philosopher, encouraging children to find their authentic selves, by creating an environment of self-directed play time away from the confines of the modern-day education system. “I didn’t have many friends growing up, so I automatically became very close to nature. I would sit on the tree branches and talk to birds. The group of dogs around the buildings were my friends. I grew up like that. A lot of my childhood was also spent on film sets. Baba was my closest friend,” recounts Babil.

At a glance, the alternative education system may seem like it was an ‘artistic’ upbringing but at the time, Babil felt differently. “It was very lonely because I couldn’t relate to anybody and nobody could relate to me. Even though the creativity and the artist within me was flourishing, I didn’t care. I just wanted to have friends,” says Babil. “I grew up a very lonely child.”

Finding peace and comfort in his solitude came at the cost of experiencing the discomfort of being alone. But it was also in those years of solitude that Babil came closer to himself. “When you grow up in solitude, through connecting with nature, you understand that you, yourself, are nature. You can connect with yourself much more,” says Babil. “Growing up in solitude, your inner world becomes very profound and vast. In hindsight, I realised that the discomfort it caused me was a crucial factor in my upbringing. I am very grateful for that early experience of loneliness.”

The reason behind his nonconformist upbringing was an adamant father who refused to let his child be ‘limited’ in any way — even if it meant changing the basic foundations through which a child makes sense of his world. “Baba always thought that the education system in itself limits and structures the child,” he adds. “We all have a child within us, which is the purest form of our existence. Once we lose that, our creativity goes away. It was very important for Baba to nurture that child within me,” says Babil. In April 2020, Irrfan Khan passed away due to neuroendocrine cancer. A nation lost one of its finest actors. And a son lost his father. His best friend. The comparisons that awaited his debut felt like “a huge weight on my shoulders”.

While dealing with grief doesn’t get easier with age, Babil adds, “Once you learn how to accept grief and not run away from it, which is what had been instilled in me through my upbringing, you let it come to you and hit you and experience it in its entirety, it becomes easier to deal with.” What was also overwhelming for him was the need to grow up all of a sudden. “It’s something you can never be prepared for. You cannot experience the experience before it happens. When I lost Baba, that feeling of having no choice but to grow up, to be a ‘man’ — the choice itself being taken away from me, was too overwhelming. I had to somehow figure out a way to retain that inner child in me. That’s what he would’ve wanted.”

When the noise around gets louder, how does one preserve the child within? “How effectively you’re able to preserve that child is a sign of your evolution. It’s a challenge I’m going through because in the [Bollywood] industry, you have to please a lot of people and stroke a lot of egos. But in doing so, you still need to be truthful. So I’m trying to find a balance,” says Babil, who recently made his debut in Bulbbul director Anvita Dutt’s Qala alongside Tripti Dimri.

Besides the candour and quest to prove himself in the movies, Babil has also been making style statements when it comes to his sartorial choices. Whether it’s ‘soft boy’ fashion or bold in-your-face moves, from eclectic accessories to painting his nails and donning bright pink blazers, his inherent ability to express his unique sense of identity through clothing makes him a poster boy for the Gen-Z style file. “I have no idea what Gen-Z trends are. But I would love to be the poster boy for them,” he laughs. “I’m not someone who follows trends. I just do something that comes to me naturally. If that becomes a trend, then great.” While the young actor can be seen in everything from couture to sustainable brands, to sometimes clothes borrowed from his family members, fashion for Babil is fun and play. A pursuit of humouring that child within — that society around him keeps trying to “dignify”.

“Fashion, for me, is having fun with my identity and my identity is not a fixed thing,” says Babil. “I believe that our identity is ever-changing and constantly flowing. It’s a man sometimes, it’s a woman sometimes, it’s an old person, it’s a young baby, it’s everything. And fashion is an extremely effective and immediate tool to be able to express that identity and its ever-changing nature,” he adds. A research report by payment specialist Klarna on found that Gen-Z consumers are the biggest consumers of gender-fluid fashion, with more than 50 per cent making purchases of styling items conventionally considered outside their gender identity.

A generation that seeks unflinching authenticity, whether it’s through your clothes or personality, can find many ways to relate to the young actor. But his risk-taking nature, whether in fashion or otherwise, is a product of his upbringing, believes Babil. “I’ve been brought up in a way that’s totally disconnected to what this generation should act or be like. I was never around people who were telling me how to act or what is ‘cool’ or if I’m being weird,” he adds. “I’ve never had the burden of getting acceptance from the generation around me. Growing up, my individuality is all I had. Fashion is a way for me to express that. Right now, what may be weird will be cool tomorrow. It’s an ever-shifting world.”

For the actor, however, the primary focus right now is to prove his acting chops to the audience. “There’s a long way to go for that but once I’ve proven that to the audience, you will see me take much bigger risks,” says Babil.

The actor will be next seen in the web series The Railway Men, a tribute to the unsung heroes of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, alongside a notable cast comprising Kay Kay Menon and R. Madhavan. “As I’m starting my journey, I’m realising that it can get harder with time to stick to your gut feelings and retain that child within. The courage you require to follow your feelings becomes greater. But that’s the risk you must take,” Babil signs off.

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