He was one of Indian cinema’s finest actors and among its most successful exports to Hollywood. He had only just begun, writes Nandini Ramnath.
Irfan Khan (1967-2020), one of the acclaimed and finest actors of Indian cinema died in Mumbai on Wednesday. He was 53. A veteran of nearly 80 films, Irrfan almost gave up acting in his 30s — after an unrewarding decade in TV soaps.
According to a note shared by his publicist on behalf of the family, “It’s saddening that this day, we have to bring forward the news of him passing away. Irrfan was a strong soul, someone who fought till the very end and always inspired everyone who came close to him. After having been struck by lightning in 2018 with the news of rare cancer, he took life soon after as it came and he fought the many battles that came with it. Surrounded by his love, his family for whom he most cared about, he left for heavenly abode, leaving behind truly a legacy of his own. We all pray and hope that he is at peace.”
Irrfan had been diagnosed in March 2018 with a neuroendocrine tumour which affects cells that release hormones into the bloodstream. He had spent several months being treated in London. Irrfan made his medical condition public with a bolt-from-the-blue tweet and posted a poem to his followers on Instagram suggesting his religion was playing an important role in coming to terms with the disease.
“God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.”
In a tweet quoting Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With The Wind, he greeted the news philosophically.
“Life is under no obligation to give us what we expect,” he said.
He had returned to India in 2020 and was admitted to a hospital in Mumbai for a colon infection earlier this week. He is survived by his wife, television writer and producer Sutapa Sikdar, and sons Babil and Ayan. His mother, Saeeda Begum, had died in Jaipur on April 25 at the age of 86.
Two productions that had been previously filmed followed the announcement, Blackmail, and Karwaan. Irrfan managed to headline another movie in 2020, Angrezi Medium. It was the last Bollywood release before India went into lockdown in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Irrfan was born on January 7, 1967, as Sahebzade Irfan Ali Khan, in a middle-class family in Tonk, Rajasthan. His father, Yaseen Khan, died when Irrfan was 18. His mother’s family had a royal lineage and his father was a wealthy businessman who owned a tyre business.
Khan dropped the “Sahabzada” from his name as it pointed to his family’s privileged past — he felt this would get in the way. He also changed his name from “Irfan” to “Irrfan” — not for any noble motive — but simply because he preferred the way it sounds.
When his father died, he side-stepped expectations he would go into the tyre business. He was determined to become an actor, although it was not a future his family and friends could easily foresee.
“No-one could have imagined I would be an actor, I was so shy. So thin. But the desire was so intense.”
In 1984, he applied for a scholarship to the National School of Drama in Delhi.
“I thought I would suffocate if I didn’t get admission,” he told one interviewer.
Early in life, Irrfan wanted to be an actor but he wasn’t sure he had the looks for it, he told Anupam Kher in the celebrity talk show Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai in 2015. But when he saw Mithun Chakraborty in Mrinal Sen’s Mrigayaa (1977), he was encouraged: if a dark-skinned and earthy-looking actor could make it, so could he.
After completing a two-year course in Dramatic Arts at the University of Rajasthan, Irrfan enrolled in the prestigious National School of Drama in Delhi in 1984. He lied about his previous experience in the theatre and got in.
Some of his classmates remembered him as a quiet, intense young man, buried in his thoughts and trying to make sense of and take control of this new challenge called acting. It was at drama school that he also met his future wife — the writer Sutapa Sikdar.
“He was always focused. I remember when he would come home, he would head straight for the bedroom, sit on the floor, and read books. The rest of us would be hanging around gossiping,” she recalled.
“My feeling is that Irrfan didn’t have a friend in class, except for Sutapa,” legendary NSD teacher Ram Gopal Bajaj told Aseem Chhabra for the 2020 biography Irrfan Khan. “He was basically a loner and that is why I noticed him. There was some kind of inner gentleness in that boy, which perhaps carries on.”
He was keen to work in film but the early roles were in India’s TV soap operas. With dozens of cable channels — each carrying multiple domestic daily dramas — the work was easy to come by but artistically unsatisfying.
For a decade he got stuck in hundreds of uninspiring parts “chasing middle-class housewives” on the Zee and Star Plus networks. He thought seriously about quitting acting.
“Once they didn’t even pay me because they thought my acting was so bad,” he claimed.
Irrfan’s ambition was to be in the movies, and he got there one small role at a time. His first big-screen appearance was in a single scene in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! in 1988. He played a professional letter writer.
His big-screen debut was a further disappointment. Cast as one of the younger characters in Mira Nair’s Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay!, he was devastated when his character hit the cutting room floor.
The scriptwriter sympathised but could only tell him “you win some, you lose some”.
Big screen stardom
After years of slaving away in television shows and a string of critically acclaimed but little-seen films in the 1990s, the actor had entered the Bollywood big league in the early 2000s. He was one of India’s most well-known exports to Hollywood. Films such as Haasil, Maqbool, Talvar, Paan Singh Tomar, The Lunchbox, Piku, and The Warrior owe as much to this late-bloomer as to their makers.
His breakthrough came in the British-Indian film The Warrior. It was shot in the high Himalayas and the roasting deserts of Rajasthan.
It was the first feature from British director Asif Kapadia. He couldn’t afford an established Bollywood star and was on the look-out for a talented unknown. Khan starred as the eponymous warlord who attempts to give up the sword.
The film won the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the Baftas. It was shortlisted for the UK’s official entry for the Academy Awards but had to be dropped on the technicality that Hindi was not a language indigenous to Britain.
The critical success of The Warrior launched his film career, and for the next two decades, he would make as many as five or six films a year.
He kept in touch with Mira Nair — who had spotted his talent at drama school but cut him from Salaam Bombay!. They would go on to make The Namesake in 2006 and New York, I Love You in 2010.
Michael Winterbottom cast him as a Pakistani police captain in A Mighty Heart, and Wes Anderson wrote a small role for him in The Darjeeling Limited — just so he could work with him.
In 2008, he teamed up with Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire. Khan played the police inspector who beats Dev Patel’s character, Jamal — believing him to be a cheat. Boyle described the performance as “beautiful to watch”.
By now, Khan had reached the stage where he could be choosy about the roles he took on.
“I try to do films which leave a longer impact, which speak to you and which keep coming back to you after you’ve seen them. I prefer movies which have a longer relationship,” he told one interviewer.
Khan lacked the looks for a traditional Bollywood romantic lead but made his name as a character actor in Hindi cinema and in Hollywood productions like Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and Jurassic World.
Relationship with Islam
Deeply introspective and philosophical in nature, Khan would speak candidly and often controversially about both his religion and the film industries in which he worked.
“I always object to the word Bollywood,” he once told the Guardian. “That industry has its own technique that… has nothing to do with aping Hollywood. It originates in Parsi theatre.
“Hollywood is too planned. India has no planning at all. It’s more spontaneous and informal. India could be more formal and Hollywood more spontaneous.”
In truth, few actors can claim to have mastered both genres as well as Irrfan Khan.
He would also refuse to take parts he felt had too close a religious or cultural connotation — declining roles in Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children and Mira Nair’s Reluctant Fundamentalist.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, he found himself twice detained at Los Angeles airport because his name was similar to that of a terrorist suspect.
He tried to drop the family name, Khan — preferring to be called simply Irrfan in the credits of his films. He also [clear]upset Muslim leaders by criticising animal sacrifice in Islam.
“We perform these rituals without knowing the meaning behind them,” he said.
He was angrily advised to concentrate on his film career and refrain from making “random statements about our religion”.
In 2011, he was awarded the Padma Shri — India’s fourth-highest civilian honour for his contribution to the arts.
A year later, he would play the adult Piscine in Life of Pi – Ang Lee’s film version of the Booker Prize-winning novel of a ship-wrecked boy forced to share a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, and a ferocious Bengal tiger.
And he would enjoy playing the super scientist Rajit Ratha in The Amazing Spiderman and Simon Masrani, the billionaire owner of Jurassic World.
He also appeared in Abhinay Deo’s Blackmail and Puzzle, the latter of which was shot in New York alongside co-star Kelly Macdonald.
Irrfan had many more emotions and experiences to share with his fans. Had he not been cut down by poor health, he would have been one of the richest careers in Hindi cinema.
— Irrfan (@irrfank) March 5, 2018
Angrezi Medium was a sequel to one of Irrfan’s biggest hits, Hindi Medium (2017). But success was measured unconventionally for the tall and trim Rajasthani with reddened eyes and red-hot talent. Irrfan will be remembered not for top-billed roles or blockbusters, but for entering a scene and taking charge of it. Sometimes, his mere presence was enough to raise the temperature. At other times, he played along, shovelling the snow for a fee.
Angrezi Medium (2020).
Along the way, he amassed a pile of roles his fans might prefer to forget. Because of his commitment and perseverance, another set of parts will survive the test of time and the unkindness of memory.
Guftagoo with Irrfan Khan (2015).
Irrfan collaborated with Nair in more substantial ways in 2006 in the feature The Namesake, the short film Migration (2007), and her contribution to the anthology film New York, I Love You (2008).
Before the movies came television, which paid the bills and honed Irrfan’s ability to excel in intimate settings. He had a walk-on part in Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj (1988-’89) and was also in Govind Nihalani’s TV productions Jazeere (1991) and Pita (1991). Irrfan went on to appear in numerous TV shows, including Chankaya (1992), Chandrakanta (1994) and the popular Banegi Apni Baat (1995).
State-funded arthouse cinema was on its last legs when Irrfan sought to make his mark on the big screen. He continued to accept parts that gave him incremental exposure to the different modes of acting required in the movies. In Basu Chatterjee’s Kamla Ka Maut (1989), he was Ajit, the untrustworthy boyfriend of Geeta (Roopa Ganguly). When Geeta berates Ajit, he gives her a flash of the soon-to-be-famous Intense Irrfan Look and says, you must come over.
In Govind Nihalani’s Drishti (1990), Irrfan played the smouldering lover of Dimple Kapadia’s older and disaffected housewife. The blazing eyes stood out in the slim frame, and there was already the ability to suggest a brooding nature and repressed feelings.
There were also roles in children’s films, including Karamati Coat (1993) and The Goal (1999), and offbeat dramas, such as Bada Din (1998).
Irrfan was still being credited in these years either as Irfan or Irfan Khan. He added an extra “r” in his name, presumably for luck, and dropped his surname in 2003.
Irrfan and Dimple Kapadia in Drishti (1990). Courtesy Udbhav Productions.
Among the early films that gave Irrfan a bigger platform was Tapan Sinha’s Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1990). The film stars Pankaj Kapur as an upright scientist struggling to be recognised for his groundbreaking research on a leprosy vaccine. Irrfan had a crisp but meaty role as a sympathetic science reporter.
By the 2000s, the length and quality of the roles began increasing. Irrfan began a new balancing act between well-written parts in which he could show off his range and mainstream productions that kept him in the public eye while also lining the bank account.
This was the decade in which Irrfan played a samurai-like enforcer in Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior (2001) – a movie that got good critical notices for its crew and further established Irrfan’s ability to evoke mystery and a sense of quietude.
The Warrior (2001).
This was also the decade in which Irrfan played disreputable lawyers and terrorists, gadabouts and police officers. One of his steady employers was Vishesh Films, run by the brothers Mahesh and Mukesh Bhatt. In their Gunaah (2002), Irrfan utters the memorable words, “Get naked, baby!”
Tigmanshu Dhulia, an old friend from Irrfan’s NSD days, directed him in Charas in 2004 as a policeman who becomes a blonde-haired drug dealer. The performance was centimetres away from self-parody.
The more worthy Dhulia-Irrfan collaboration, which finally got Irrfan the attention he deserved, had actually come the previous year. In 2003’s Haasil, Irrfan played a student union leader who sees himself as a revolutionary and a connoisseur (“I like artists,” he says) but is really a glorified street ruffian. Jimmy Shergill played the hero, but Irrfan’s villain got equal attention too.
The Dhulia-Irrfan duet resulted in a career-best for both director and actor in 2012. Paan Singh Tomar, the biopic of the Indian Army soldier and athlete who became a dacoit, is one of Bollywood’s finest sports films. Irrfan won a National Film Award for a performance that traced Tomar’s complex arc from national hero to social outcast.
Paan Singh Tomar (2012).
Also out in 2003, in the same year as Haasil, was another career-altering role – as a gangster aiming for the big game and his boss’s lover in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Macbeth-inspired Maqbool.
“After much thinking, Vishal decided to take a risk with Irrfan Khan, having seen him perform in Haasil,” Aseem Chhabra wrote in his biography. “Irrfan would be the youngest NSD graduate in the cast, including other alumni – Naseer, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur, and Piyush Mishra. In fact, towards the beginning of the film, there is a scene where all these actors are sitting in Abbaji’s living room. Irrfan was the juniormost of all, but now his time had finally come. He sat in the midst of all the senior actors with the confidence of a veteran.”
The gush of assignments continued after Maqbool. The smouldering continued, but a more self-deprecating side revealed itself too. The year 2007 saw some of Irrfan’s most well-regarded roles. These include Anurag Basu’s Life… in a Metro (2007), in which Irrfan played a potential groom with rough manners and an irrepressible romantic streak.
Meanwhile, three films from 2007 decisively continued the journey towards Hollywood that had tentatively begun with The Warrior. In Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, Irrfan had a small part as a grieving father. In Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, based on the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, Irrfan portrayed a local investigative officer who is troubled by the spread of religious fundamentalism.
And in The Namesake, Mira Nair’s screen adaptation of the Jhumpa Lahiri novel of the same name, Irrfan fits right in as Ashoke Ganguli, a Bengali professor who seeks a new life with his wife (played by Tabu) in the United States.
A Mighty Heart (2007).
Irrfan and Tabu, who had also been paired in Maqbool, rekindled their chemistry for Meghna Gulzar’s police procedural Talvar in 2015. Inspired by the Arushi Talwar-Hemraj Banjade double murders in Noida in 2008, Talvar includes a deceptively casual performance by Irrfan. His government investigator is irreverent but honest, committed to the system, and yet aware of its imperfections and absurdities.
Even as Irrfan continued to draw good notices for his Bollywood projects (among them Haider and D-Day), his stock was rising in Hollywood. He was in the multiple-Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008), the Marvel Comics superhero adventure The Amazing Spider-man (2012), Ang Lee’s acclaimed Life of Pi (2012), the critical darling The Lunchbox (2013), the global blockbuster Jurassic World (2015), and the Tom Hanks-led Inferno (2016).
A measure of how global Irrfan had become was his casting as a businessman of Middle East extraction in Jurassic World and the sardonic and ruthless Harry Sims in Inferno. “Young people are disappointing,” Sims declares. “I find they become tolerable around 35.”
Irrfan also appeared in the third season of the HBO television series In Treatment in 2010 and the Japanese mini-series Tokyo Trial in 2016.
The Lunchbox (2013).
“Irrfan is a person who is always saying ‘Kuch aur karte hain [Let’s do something more],”’ writer and producer Shailja Kejriwal told Aseem Chhabra for his Irrfan biography. “I think he has such a fertile mind that he just feels, ‘Oh, I have not done this, so let me break that barrier for myself.’ He doesn’t want to be a person who is resting on his laurels. He could be saying, ‘Now I have a Hollywood film, so let me do it.’ But he is always looking to do something new for himself.’”
In the 2010s, Irrfan continued to balance populist fare with arthouse productions, among them Qissa (2015) and The Song of Scorpions (2017), both by Anup Singh. The actor’s restlessness encouraged him to make his own films. He produced as well as headlined the Hindi-language vigilante movie Madaari in 2016 and the Bangladeshi drama Doob (No Bed of Roses) in 2017.
In an interview to Scroll.in before the release of Madaari in July 2016, Irrfan rejected the possibility of writing screenplays or directing films himself. “If I could write, I would not be an actor,” he said. “And I can’t be a director – for that, you need to know how to multi-task, and I am a single-track guy.”
This “single-track guy” had, by then, developed a healthy and cynicism-free approach towards the lax standards in mainstream projects and the demands of more rigorous-minded productions.
“In our cinema, we can live without nuance,” Irrfan told Scroll.in. “If we can deliver a line properly, our job is done. Hollywood needs nuances of behaviour. Our cinema needs an attitude. You can deliver a superficial performance and it will still work.”
In recent years, Irrfan had begun playing older versions of his character in Life… In a Metro – men with a sense of humour, a laissez-faire attitude towards propriety, and an abiding faith in romance.
He was paired with Deepika Padukone in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku (2015), in which he stole scenes from under Amitabh Bachchan’s nose. In Tanuja Chandra’s Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017), Irrfan wooed Parvathy Thiruvothu and in Akarsh Khurana’s Karwaan (2018), anybody who was watching.
Irrfan’s illness was a bolt from the blue and a tragic interruption to his steady progress. In June 2018, he spoke candidly about his ordeal. “The suddenness made me realise how you are just a cork floating in the ocean with UNPREDICTABLE currents! And you are desperately trying to control it,” he told the Times of India newspaper in an email interview.
He was grateful for the support from his fans and admirers. “…I feel all their prayers become ONE,” he said. “One big force, like a force of the current, which got inside me through the end of my spine and has germinated through the crown of my head.”
Irrfan proved his resilience in Angrezi Medium. Homi Adajania’s 2020 sequel to 2018 hit Hindi Medium featured Irrfan as a small-town sweet shop owner who moves heaven and earth to get his daughter enrolled in a posh college in the United Kingdom.
Reviews of Angrezi Medium were effusive about the light touch that Irrfan brought to his performance. The desire to see this arguably underutilised actor return for yet another round was unmistakable. Irrfan had stacked up a long list of credits, but for his admirers, he hadn’t yet reached his peak. He had only just begun the climb. with additional input from The Hindu and BBC.