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Article American Hindi

Irrfan Khan (1967–2020): Accomplished actor who won hearts and spoke his mind

The passing of an artiste like Irrfan Khan is a loss not just for lovers of cinema but for the very medium.

Keyur Seta

Indian cinema has had its fair share of male stars and superstars over the decades. At least some of these stars ruled the hearts of cinegoers with their antics on screen. The mania for the stars was at its peak in the 1980s. Into such a scenario entered an earnest young artiste named Irrfan Khan.

This actor did not perform heroic acts on screen like some other stars did. He did not run around trees with a heroine, a song on his lips. Nor did he bash up an army of baddies or show off flamboyant steps in typical dance numbers. Khan had only one quality to boast of — the ability to act. But he had this single quality in such abundance that few could match up to him, at least in this part of the world.

Irrfan Khan was one of that rare breed of artistes who became popular in India and abroad purely on account of their phenomenal performances. To lose such an actor is sad not only for film lovers but for the medium of cinema itself.

Irrfan Khan started off in a small way in 1986 with roles in television series like Katha Sagar and Srikant. He then bagged a prestigious project, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988), in which he again played a small character of a letter writer. Going by his appearance as a common citizen, few would have bet on Khan becoming an internationally known actor a couple of decades later.

Khan got a chance to show his wide range of acting skills for the first time in Shyam Benegal’s TV series Bharat Ek Khoj that same year. In the serial he played various historical characters like the prince Salim aka Jahangir, the Rohilla chieftain Najeeb-ud-Daula, Malayaketu from the political thriller Mudrarakshasa, and so on.

             As Najeeb Khan Rohilla in Bharat Ek Khoj

In between Khan bagged Basu Chatterjee’s film Kamla Ki Maut (1989). He had only a supporting role in a strong line-up of artistes like Pankaj Kapur, Rupa Ganguly, Supriya Pathak and Ashutosh Gowariker. But there is an interesting anecdote related to this film which was shared by filmmaker Hardik Mehta.

While Mehta was shooting his debut film Kaamyaab (2020), Sanjay Mishra, who plays the protagonist, a 'supporting' actor, in it, told him that despite being in a supporting role, Khan’s face was included on the posters for Kamla Ki Maut. “That evening, all of us NSD waale [graduates of the National School of Drama, Delhi] celebrated so much that someone who had just passed out a few years back was on the poster of a Basu Chatterjee film!” said Mishra as quoted by Mehta.

Irrfan Khan followed it up with good performances in films like Drishti (1990) and Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1990), but somehow he could not make much headway in Hindi cinema in the first decade or so of his career. But he continued to act in popular Hindi TV serials like Chanakya, Kirdaar, The Great Maratha, Chandrakanta, Banegi Apni Baat, Tere Mere Sapne, Just Mohabbat, Sparsh, Gardish, Bhanwar and Jai Hanuman. Not many may remember today that he played the sage Valmiki in the last one.

It was director Asif Kapadia’s international venture The Warrior (2001) that set the tone for Khan on the big screen. He not only got to play the lead role in the film, but also did complete justice to it. The film also introduced him to the international market.

The Warrior

The start of the new millennium was also a time when newer and unconventional subjects were being tried by mostly newcomer directors. It was almost as if they were trying to revive the parallel cinema movement which was a rage in the 1970s and 1980s, with the likes of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani leading it. Khan once rued the fact that by the time he graduated from the NSD, the parallel cinema movement was almost dead. The revival of the movement gave new hope to his career.

Khan became a part of Tigmanshu Dhulia’s debut film Haasil (2003), which also starred Jimmy Sheirgill and Hrishitaa Bhatt. Although the film did not set the box office on fire, Khan got noticed in mainstream Hindi cinema for the first time through his character of a student political leader.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s prestigious project Maqbool (2004) turned out to be tailormade for Irrfan Khan. In his first leading role in Hindi cinema, the actor came out a winner. It was this film that marked his arrival as a leading man to be reckoned with. Madhur Bhandarkar’s Aan: Men At Work (2005) might not be one of Khan's most accomplished works, but his semi-funny, semi-ruthless act as gangster Yusuf Pathan clicked with the hard-core commercial cinema audience.

With Tabu in The Namesake

From here on, Khan was seen in a series of mediocre to outright bad films. Movies like Rog (2005), Chehra (2005), Chocolate (2005), 7-1/2 Phere: More Than A Wedding (2005) and The Killer (2006) did not do justice to his talent whatsoever.

However, he had little to worry because something bigger was in store for him — the international arena. Khan bagged the lead role in Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006). According to journalist and author Aseem Chhabra’s book on the actor, the back story of his role in this film goes back to the 1980s when Nair was making Salaam Bombay.

It was a tragedy for Khan as he was dropped from a leading role in Salaam Bombay just two days before the shooting was to begin because he was too tall. At the time, Nair promised to cast him in a lead role in the future. But Khan wept all night after being dropped and getting just an appearance in the film. Nair, however, made it up to him years later with The Namesake. Interestingly, Irrfan Khan visited the United States for the first time only for the shooting of this film.

In Salaam Bombay

Chhabra’s book also mentions the amusing incident of Khan’s mother Saeeda Begum wanting to scold Nair for killing off her son’s character in the film. The book mentions her saying, ‘Bula usko, bula. Usko mera bachcha hee mila tha maarne ke liye [Summon her. Why did she have to kill my child in the film]?’ Khan was very close to his mother. She died in their hometown Jaipur in Rajasthan just a few days before his demise and Khan could not attend her funeral because the entire country is under a lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Namesake opened the doors for Irrfan Khan for a full-fledged career in the West. He was next seen in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) in a brief appearance, followed by the anthology movie New York, I Love You (2008). He starred with Natalie Portman in the short directed by Mira Nair in the film. A Mighty Heart (2008), based on the abduction and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, was Khan's next global project in which he played the police chief of Karachi in Pakistan.

Khan then bagged his first American television series in the form of HBO’s In Treatment (2010). But he was faced with the steep challenge of memorizing four pages of dialogue, since the show had long takes, with only one night to prepare. He called up acting great Naseeruddin Shah for advice. Shah just told him to read the dialogues repeatedly throughout the night. Khan eventually overcame the challenge and Shah was happy with his performance in In Treatment. As per Chhabra’s book, Khan considered this his toughest role ever.

But Khan’s biggest moment in the West came with British filmmaker Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Although Dev Patel and Freida Pinto played the leads, Irrfan Khan’s act as a tough and ruthless investigating officer left a mark. The film went on to win as many as seven Oscars, including for Best Picture and Best Director. One still remembers the images of the happy-faced Khan holding the Oscar with his teammates from the film.

The year 2012 was special for Khan. His next major international project, Ang Lee's Life Of Pi, was released and went on to win several awards around the globe. The same year, his Hindi film career graph began rising with Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar (2012). He played the titular role in this biopic and delivered a knockout performance. Before this film, Khan had been part of a series of duds like Dil Kabaddi (2008), Acid Factory (2009), Right Yaaa Wrong (2010), Knock Out (2010), Hisss (2010) and Thank You (2011), interspersed with films like New York (2009) and Billu (2009).

The very next year, Irrfan Khan was part of a small film by a short-film writer-director making his feature debut. Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox (2013), co-starring Nimrat Kaur, was an emotional saga of an unusual relationship between two unlikely people. The quaint film not only won hearts and a large number of awards worldwide, but also did well commercially on foreign shores even if Indian audiences did not quite take to it. Many, in fact, believed the film would be a great candidate for the Oscars. But it lost out in the race and India's official nominee for Best Foreign Language Film was The Good Road (2013, Gujarati).

The following years saw Irrfan Khan's star rise both in Hindi cinema and Hollywood. Piku (2015) saw him matching up to Amitabh Bachchan while in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014), he was unforgettable despite playing an extended cameo of the character Roohdaar. Meghna Gulzar’s highly impressive Talvar (2015) saw him play an investigative officer with a sense of humour. 

In and as Paan Singh Tomar

Hindi Medium is another film that stands out in Irrfan Khan's filmography. Though he had done plenty of good to very good films, this was probably the only time in his career in Hindi cinema where he delivered a box-office hit playing the lead role. He followed up with some good films like Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017) and Karwaan (2018).

Unfortunately, Hindi Medium will remain his first and last big hit in Hindi cinema as solo leading man. The second film in the series, Angrezi Medium (2020), was in theatres only for a few days before the coronavirus pandemic and the countrywide lockdown intervened to cut its run short. 

In Angrezi Medium

As an interviewee, Khan was a delight. He might not have been very pally with journalists but he was someone who spoke his mind without fear while at the same time remaining humble in his behaviour. During a group interaction involving this writer, Khan unhesitatingly and casually used the cuss word ‘chutiya’ while answering a question.

In 2017, he didn’t mince words at an event while criticizing the practice of animal sacrifice for Bakri Eid. This brought him a lot of flak from religious leaders and self-appointed guardians of Islam. But instead of lying low, as many celebrities do when faced with such a controversy, Khan hit back through a number of tweets.

Irrfan Khan's passing has robbed India and the world of not just an incredible actor but also a celebrity who refused to be coy or diplomatic. He was unlike the other four Khans in Hindi cinema (Shah Rukh, Salman, Aamir and Saif Ali) in his choice of films and roles, in his performances and in his off-the-set conversations. And he was also the only Khan who wasn't disliked by fans of any of the others.

Now that he is gone, we can't do much better than recall a line from his entry scene in Bhardwaj's Haider: "Main tha, main hoon aur main rahunga [I was, I am and I shall remain]." That is certainly what millions of his admirers around the world would like to believe.