Irrfan Khan was one of the finest actors in Indian cinema, and one of Hollywood’s most famous exports.
A veteran of nearly 80 movies, he almost gave up acting in his 30s-following an unrewarding decade in television soaps.
Khan lacked the looks for a typical romantic Bollywood lead but made his name in Hindi cinema and Hollywood productions such as Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and Jurassic World as a character actor.
In a deeply introspective and reflective style, Khan would talk frankly and sometimes controversially about both his Islamic faith and the film industries he served in.
“I am still opposed to the Bollywood term,” he once told the Guardian. “That industry has its own methodology that … has little to do with Hollywood aping. This originates in Parsi Theatre. India has almost no planning at all. It is more casual and spontaneous. Indeed, few actors can claim to have mastered both genres as well as Irrfan Khan.
He was born Sahabzada Irfan Ali Khan on 7 January 1967 in the Rajasthan village of Tonk. His mother’s family had a royal lineage and his father was a rich, self-made businessman who owned a tyre company. So small. But the drive was so strong. ”
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.
The Big Break
His breakthrough came in the British-Indian movie The Warrior. It was filmed in the high Himalayas and the roasting deserts of Rajasthan. It was British director Asif Kapadia’s first film. He couldn’t afford an established Bollywood star and was on the lookout for a talented unknown. Khan starred as the eponymous warlord who was trying to give up the sword.
The film won an Alexander Korda Award at the Baftas for Best British Film. It was short-listed for the official UK entry for the Academy Awards but had to be withdrawn on the technicality that Hindi was not an indigenous English language.
The Warrior’s critical success set off his film career, and he would make as many as five to six films a year over the next two decades.
He kept in touch with Mira Nair-who at the drama school had spotted his talent but cut him off from Salaam Bombay! They will go on making The Nickname in 2006 and I Love You in 2010, New York.
Michael Winterbottom cast him into A Mighty Heart as a Pakistani police captain, and Wes Anderson wrote a small part for him in The Darjeeling Limited-only to get him to work with.
In 2008, he teamed up with Slumdog Millionaire’s Danny Boyle. Khan was playing the inspector of police who beats the character of Dev Patel, Jamal-believing him to be a thief. Boyle described the show as “beautiful to watch”
By now, Khan had entered the point where he could be selective about the positions he played.
“I’m trying to make movies that leave you with a longer effect, that speak to you and that keep coming back to you after you’ve seen them. I like movies that have a longer relationship,” he told one interviewer.
Neuroendocrine tumors were diagnosed in 2018-affecting cells that release hormones into the bloodstream. He accepted the news philosophically in a tweet quoting of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With The Wind, “Life is not obliged to give us what we should expect,” he said.
He received care for his disease in London and shared a poem on Instagram to his followers indicating that his faith played a significant part in coming to terms with the illness. “God talks to each one of us as he makes us, then quietly comes out of the night with us.”