For Irrfan, who died in Mumbai on Wednesday at the age of 53, life had only just begun.
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.
Irrfan had many more emotions and experiences to share with his fans. Had he not been cut down by poor health, his would have been one of the richest careers in Hindi cinema.
Irrfan had been diagnosed in March 2018 with a neuroendocrine tumour, and had spent several months being treated in the United Kingdom. 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.
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 a 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 heaven abode, leaving behind truly a legacy of his own. We all pray and hope that he is at peace.”
In March 2018, Irrfan made his medical condition public with a bolt-from-the-blue tweet. 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 a lockdown in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
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.
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.
Irrfan was born on January 7, 1967, in Tonk in Rajasthan, as Sahebzade Irfan Ali Khan. His family was middle class. His father, Yaseen Khan, died when Irrfan was 18.
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. 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. Among his classmates was his future wife, Sutapa Sikdar.
“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.”
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.
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-in 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.
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.
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.
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 fit right in as Ashoke Ganguli, a Bengali professor who seeks a new life with his wife (played by Tabu) in the United States.
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.
“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 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 of 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 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 the 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.