A star of the big screen in both Eastern and Western cultures, Irrfan Khan may not have been the first name most people think of when they think cinema superstars but he was a formidable performer and acclaimed actor who broke down barriers between Bollywood and Hollywood for over 30 years. Khan was considered one of the finest actors in Indian cinema making a name for himself as a celebrated performer in both Hindi and American films with the last two decades being his most successful and prominent in the medium. Sadly Khan suffered poor health late in his life being diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumor in 2018 and succumbing to a colon infection on April 28, 2020 at the age of 53. Khan played a part in everything from Oscar darlings to summer blockbusters with most of his success coming from his appearances in Indian-Hindi films giving him celebrity status in his home country. As we mourn his passing let’s take a look at this celebrated actors that turned him into one of the most respected cross-cultural actors of his time. This is In Memoriam: Irrfan Khan.
Born Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan in Rajasthan in January of 1967, Irrfan Khan was brought up in a Muslim family to parents who owned a tire business. He remained in the Tonks district of India for much of his childhood and in his younger years found a talent and affinity for cricket eventually being selected to play in the CK Nayudu Trophy as an emerging potential star in the sport. The travel expenses proved to be a roadblock for Khan preventing him from attending, however he soon discovered a love for acting thanks to his maternal uncle who himself was a theatrical performer. After his family moved to Jaipur Khan was introduced to numerous theater professionals eventually stepping onto the stage himself. He went on to join the National School of Drama in New Delhi in 1984 officially kicking off his acting career only a few years later.
After graduating from the National School of Drama in 1987 Khan was offered his first acting role on the big screen in “Salaam Bombay” where he played the bit part of the letter writer. However, his scenes did not make the final cut of the movie. Khan’s career truly started on the small screen where he appeared in “Shrikant” from 1985 through 1986 and two episodes of “Bharat Ek Khoj” in 1988. He continued his small screen appearances into the 90s appearing as Marxist political activist Makhdoom Mohiuddin in “Kahkashan” and portrayed a psychotic killer in the 1995 serial “Darr”. Khan’s television career spanned all throughout the 90s and beyond with appearances in numerous television shows in his home country. His big screen success brought him before wider audiences especially in the 90s. He would appear in at least one big screen or made-for-tv movie every year from 1989 through 1999 except for 1996. After being cut from “Salaam Bombay” Khan officially hit the big screen in the critically acclaimed “Kamla Ki Maut” earning him attention as a credible up-and-coming performer. He continued to appear in numerous other critical darlings like “Doctor Ki Mair” and “Such and Long Journey”.
Khan’s best years were yet to come, however. After starring in one film in 2000 Khan starred in the festival showcase “The Warrior” gaining him significant attention. Over the next few years he continued to shine in festival entries and short films before officially hitting Bollywood superstardom with 2005’s “Rog” which saw his performance lauded heavily by critics. A year earlier Khan had established himself as a capable villain actor earning his first award nomination from the Filmfare Awards, an annual Hindi award ceremony, for his role in “Haasil”. From 2000 through 2006 Khan appeared in no less than 24 films as well as a few short movies although he remained relatively unknown to western audiences until 2007. That year Khan appeared in four English-language films, a departure from his foreign roots, including “A Mighty Heart”, “The Namesake”, “The Darjeeling Limited” and “Partition” helping Khan quickly earn respect as an actor in western cinema. In 2008 Khan appeared in one of the most high profile films of his career as the police inspector in the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire”. He also appeared in six Indian-Hindi films that year making it two years in a row where the actor appeared in at least six big screen productions. He closed out the decade with three more Indian-Hindi features and the American romantic drama “New York, I Love You”.
After finding great success in the latter years of the 2000s Khan firmly established himself as an international star in the 2010s with his most successful decade by far in terms of western films. He started off with the HBO drama “In Treatment” and three Indian-Hindi movies including the horror film “Hisss” in 2010. After continuing his eastern cinema career with three more films in 2011 he returned to western audiences in 2012 with “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “Life of Pi” the latter being the film most people known Khan for in the Americas. “Life of Pi” became an awards season hit and an iconic feature of the 2010s with Khan playing the adult version of Pi telling his story to a news writer. That year he also played the titular role in “Paan Singh Tomar” which earned him wins at both the National Film Awards and the Filmfare Awards the following year in 2013. Khan returned to eastern cinema and appeared in six more movies, three in each year, in 2013 and 2014 earning an Asian Film Awards honor for Best Actor in “The Lunchbox”.
Another of his biggest western cinema roles came in 2015 with the blockbuster “Jurassic World”. Khan portrayed Simon Masrani who had finally opened the dinosaur park after his mentor John Hammond’s passing. He reprised the role in two video games that same year, “Lego Jurassic World” and “Lego Dimensions”, his only video game credits. “Jurassic World” was his only English movie of that year which included four more Indian-Hindi films. In 2016 Khan made his only foray into Disney playing the Hindi-dubbed version of Baloo in the live action “The Jungle Book” while also appearing in the American mystery thriller “Inferno”. Kahn appeared in four films in 2017 including the multi-nation joint effort “The Song of Scorpions” and as a lead actor in “Hindi Medium” which earned him his final Filmfare Award win. He made his final English-language movie in 2018 with “Puzzle”. Khan’s final film role was in the Indian-Hindi feature “Angrezi Medium”, a sequel to “Hindi Medium”, which was released in March of 2020.
Outside of film Khan was a proud husband and father as well as a highly respected member of the Indian community. He married his wife Sutapa Sikdar, also a National School of Drama graduate, in 1995 and the two had two sons together. Later in his career Khan decided to drop his last name and add an extra “r” to his first name making his title simply “Irrfan”. He did so because he claimed to enjoy the sound the extra letter made in the pronunciation and wanted his work to be defined by the artistry and not his linage. While a multi-award winner as an actor, perhaps his most notable honor he received was the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honor in Indian, in 2011. The award is presented to those Indian citizens who have made distinguished contributions in numerous areas and mediums including the arts.
Irrfan Khan leaves behind a legacy as one of the greatest and most respected Indian actors of modern times. His legacy as one of the few truly successful performers to find a career in both Hollywood and Bollywood films cannot be overlooked and helped make him a recognizable talent beyond cultural boundaries. While most of his filmography is rooted in his native India, his contributions to iconic American productions like “Slumdog Millionaire”, “Life of Pi” and “Jurassic World” will forever preserve his talent and contributions to the world of western cinema for generations to come to appreciate. Upon hearing of his passing I found myself shocked and saddened personally having been familiar with all three of his most famous western films. He will be sorely missed and is truly a cinema great who is gone too soon.