Who would have thought that India’s most “method” perfectionist would be under-prepared when interviewing one of the greatest acting talents of British cinema?

That was the nagging thought one walked away with at the end of an otherwise incredible Shakespeare on Film event, presented by the British Film Institute and British Council in collaboration with the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival as part of the Shakespeare on Film celebration. The May 23 event was put together to flag off the MAMI Film Club, an offshoot of the Mumbai Film Festival. With the National Centre for the Performing Arts acting as the backdrop, MAMI Film Club could not have hoped for a better artist than Ian McKellen to talk Shakespeare, theatre and cinema. The common man’s Magneto, the geek’s Gandalf and the literati’s Richard III, McKellen has amassed several honourable stage and film credits. A member of British acting royalty, he is also one of the few iconic figures to be able to bring the Bard’s work to life with mere intonation.

The event brought together celebrities and gawkers, as one eager attendee exclaimed over the phone, “Sonam Kapoor’s here yaa, it’s a pretty hot scene.” With Aamir Khan as presenter and host, his brood turned up in attendance. Also seen were film fraternity members such as Sonam Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut, Rajkumar Rao, Atul Kasbekar and students of theatre.

Even though Khan has never performed Shakespeare on the stage and has only tangential links to the Bard’s works in his movies (his breakthrough Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak is an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet), he is not actually the worst choice to interview an actor of McKellen’s calibre. An actor of fine talent himself, Aamir is also a good listener, as his television show Satyamev Jayate proves. As a conversationalist, here is a man who knows the worth of silence and patience.

Oh, how could thou hast gotten it so wrong, Aamir?

When speaking to an actor with acting credits that run as long as your lifespan, no amount of preparation can be enough. But to not even know that it’s his birthday on May 25? Tch, tch, Wikipedia would have told you that. To turn to the audience for the name of Vishal Bhardwaj’s first Shakespearean adaptation? That’s Homework 101.

Leave it then to the affable McKellen to salvage the situation with wonderful, heartfelt anecdotes from his life and career. He delighted the audience with his story of having experienced Shakespearean theatre for the first time as a nine-year old child. The openly gay actor’s admission that heterosexual romantic parts were the most challenging for him tickled all. He mocked Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises homosexuality, as the audience nodded approvingly. And his recital of the Shakespearean monologue from the play Sir Thomas More brought the entire house to standing applause.

An older rendition of the monologue from ‘Sir Thomas More’.

It was when the event was thrown open to questions from the audience that one understood McKellen’s commanding presence. The legend walked across the stage, sprightly with a beat in his step, taking questions with infectious glee. From playfully mocking Aamir Khan to remarking that the leggy Sonam Kapoor would make a great Lady Macbeth, he answered questions with rare candour.

In the midst of a contemporary culture so obsessed with stature and stardom, it was truly riveting to witness a seasoned performer retain the passion for his craft. And for a city preoccupied for comeuppance, it was refreshing to observe McKellen’s child-like humility and curiosity. It was ironic to see a performer having lived a life spanning social media’s limited attention span talk the 400-year old Shakespeare to a house of clicking camera shutters, but Sir Ian McKellen did so with unaffected enthusiasm.

Now if only a certain Naseeruddin Shah had led the talk, one can only imagine the heights the evening would have scaled.