I trust, I have surrendered,” wrote Irrfan Khan in a heartfelt note in 2018, talking for the first time about his fight with a rare form of cancer — an endocrine tumour, an illness affecting cells that release hormones into the bloodstream. Irrfan had made peace, quiet peace. But it was too early for Irrfan to go, which he did today in his favourite city of Mumbai, a city that shaped his dreams and gave Indian cinema one of the finest actors of all time.
Irrfan was a contemporary classic. Known globally for his roles in Life of Pie, Slumdog Millionaire and Jurassic World, Irrfan had recently undergone treatment in a London hospital before returning to Mumbai in what was to be his final tryst with the city of his dreams. In fact, two months after he made the diagnosis public, he had written an open letter about his experience with the cancer treatment, reflecting rather philosophically on the “intensity” of his pain and the “uncertainty” of life. Irrfan had in all certainty foreseen the the certitude of death showing up a little early in the day.
A note put out by his publicist on behalf of the family said: “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.”
It was only after many years of popular television shows and a number of critically applauded films in the 1990s that Irrfan broke into the ranks of frontline Bollywood big actors in the early 2000s. Films you have probably watched over and over again, such as Haasil, Maqbool, Talvar, Paan Singh Tomar, The Lunchbox, Piku and The Warrior owe their success in considerable part to a man who could sway his audiences with just a pair of extraordinarily expressive eyes.
Around the time, in March 2018, when Irrfan had revealed his medical condition, two previously filmed productions, Blackmail and Karwaan followed in the wake of the announcement. Karwaan also starred Malayalam star Dulquer Salman. Despite his condition, Irrfan, in 2020, went on to headline Homi Adajania’s comedy Angrezi Medium. In fact, it was the last movie out of Bollywood before India went into a lockdown in March. Angrezi Medium was a sequel to one of Irrfan’s biggest blockbusters, Hindi Medium, which released in 2017.
Born into a middle-class family on 7 January 1967 in Tonk in Rajasthan, Irrfan, who was christened Sahebzade Irfan Ali Khan, always wanted to be an actor but wasn’t quite sure about his looks for it. The psychological turning point came about in 1977 when he watched the inimitable Mithun Chakraborty in Mrinal Sen’s Mrigayaa. It made him think and that if a swarthy and ordinary looking actor could make it big, he could himself do so!
Irrfan decided to join acting school and did a two-year course in Dramatic Arts at the University of Rajasthan, following which he enrolled in the prestigious National School of Drama in Delhi in 1984. One of his classmates was his future wife, Sutapa Sikdar, who would go on to become a successful television writer and producer.
Among Irrfan’s teachers at NSD was the legendary Ram Gopal Bajaj. In a conversation with Aseem Chhabra for a biography of Irrfan Khan, Bajaj said: “My feeling is that Irrfan didn’t have a friend in class, except for Sutapa. He was basically a loner and that is why I noticed him. There was some kind of inner gentleness in that boy, which perhaps he carries on.” Very quietly methodical in his life, Irrfan was the classical method actor as well. Sutapa once said how her husband was the focussed sort — always heading into the bedroom at home after a shoot and settling down to read!
GROWING ON THE SMALL SCREEN
Following a series of small-time appearances, Irrfan’s first big-screen debut was in a single scene in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! in 1988 where he played a professional letter writer. Subsequently, Nair, who had noticed the smouldering talent in Irrfan, cast him in The Namesake (2006), a short film Migration (2007), and in an anthology film New York, I Love You (2008).
However, to step back a little in time before the movies, Irrfan excelled and shone in Shyam Benegal’s television series Bharat Ek Khoj (1988-89), Govind Nihalani’s productions Jazeere (1991) and Pita (1991). Thereafter, he underscored his talent, and screen presence, in several TV shows, including Chankaya (1992), Chandrakanta (1994) and Banegi Apni Baat (1995), the last being a popular sitcom.
Irrfan subsequently did a series of small parts, most famously as Ajit, the treacherous boyfriend of Geeta (Roopa Ganguly) in Basu Chatterjee’s Kamla Ka Maut (1989), and as the lover of Dimple Kapadia’s older and disillusioned housewife in Govind Nihalani’s Drishti (1990).
One of the early films that gave Irrfan a larger canvas was Tapan Sinha’s Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1990), where he executed a substantive role as a science reporter.
Intimations of impending greatness were already visible in that pair of big, intense eyes set against that tall, slim frame. Greatness would come to him gracefully!
The young man also essayed roles in children’s films, including Karamati Coat (1993) and The Goal (1999), and offbeat socials and dramas, most notably in Bada Din (1998).
THE BIG SCREEN
By the arrival of the 2000s, Irrfan began to strike a certain balance between art and commerce. In 2001, Irrfan donned the role of a modern-day samurai-like enforcer cum henchman in Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior, a movie that received critical acclaim and showcased Irrfan’s considerable range and intensity.
The decade also saw Irrfan playing a series of interesting roles — of mercenaries and carpetbaggers through the characters of lawyers, terrorists, and cops. A favourite of brothers Bhat — Mahesh and Mukesh — Irrfan starred in their Gunaah (2002), where he was fetishised by commentators for his famous words: “Get naked, baby!”
In 2003, Irrfan, who was Irfan Khan, became ‘Irrfan’, with an extra ‘r’ and without the ‘Khan’ — perhaps a concession to ushering in luck — in some ways quite uncharacteristic of the man who was possessed of prodigious talent that needed little alphabetical providence.
In 2004, an old friend from Irrfan’s NSD days, Tigmanshu Dhulia, directed him in Charas as a policeman-turned-blonde-haired drug dealer, bordering on parody, and eminently forgettable, said critics. Interestingly, the Dhulia-Irrfan collaboration had actually fetched Irrfan the critical attention he deserved in the previous year. So, in Haasil in 2003, Irrfan essayed the role of a student union leader who casts himself as a charismatic revolutionary and a sophisticate, no less, but in effect is only a slightly upmarket street ruffian! Jimmy Shergill played the hero to Irrfan’s villain, but the latter had grabbed the meatier attention.
The same year, another significant role came his way — in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Macbeth-inspired Maqbool as a gangster setting his eyes on the big league besides his boss’s lover.
However, it was only in 2012 that the Dhulia-Irrfan team returned to produce their career-best opus for both director and actor. Paan Singh Tomar, the biopic of an Indian Army soldier and athlete who turns a dacoit, is one of Bollywood’s most outstanding movies on sport. Irrfan bagged the top honours — the National Film Award for a charismatic enactment that replayed Tomar’s rise and fall from national hero to social outcast.
Meanwhile, Irrfan had also carefully built and nurtured a parallel career in Anglo-American cinema. Most notably, he played a police chief in Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, and another police officer in Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to win as many as eight Oscars. He essayed a series of character roles in big-budget Hollywood films — as a doctor in The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012 and interestingly as businessmen in Jurassic World (2015) and Inferno (2016).
In 2012 came another landmark: he played the grown-up version of the lead character in another Oscar-winner, Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee.
Such was the range of Irrfan’s repertoire that director Wes Anderson once famously said that he wrote a small role for Irrfan in his film The Darjeeling Limited only to be able to work together with him!
Irrfan trod big time on box-office success with The Lunchbox, where he plays an accountant who strikes up an epistolary romance with a disgruntled housewife Nimrat Kaur.
Irrfan was gone too early. Cinema has lost one of its finest auteurs and lovers of cinema the experience of a lifetime. So, as long as cinema will be, Irrfan shall be too.
Irrfan is survived by his wife Sutapa Sikdar and sons Babil and Ayan. His mother, Saeeda Begum, had only died just the other day on 25 April in Jaipur. She was 86. The actor couldn’t attend the funeral owing to the nationwide lockdown.
Tributes have been flowing in, mourning the passing of one of the finest actors of contemporary cinema.
In a tweet, Amitabh Bachchan wrote: “Just getting news of the passing of Irfaan Khan… this is a most disturbing and sad news… An incredible talent… A gracious colleague… a prolific contributor to the World of Cinema… left us too soon… creating a huge vacuum… Prayers!” Bachchan had worked with Irrfan in Piku.
In his tweet, Shah Rukh Khan wrote: “My friend… inspiration and the greatest actor of our times. Allah bless your soul Irrfan bhai… will miss you as much as cherish the fact that you were part of our lives. “पैमाना कहे है कोई, मैखाना कहे है दुनिया तेरी आँखों को भी, क्या क्या ना कहे है | Love u.”
Priyanka Chopra tweeted: “The charisma you brought to everything you did was pure magic. Your talent forged the way for so many in so many avenues. You inspired so many of us. Irrfan Khan you will truly be missed. Condolences to the family.”
Singer Adnan Sami said: “Oh Lord! This tragic news is heart-breaking on so many levels. I’m choked with emotion and saddened beyond words. My heartfelt condolences to the family. Irrfan, thank you for showing the world your genius… Gone too soon!”
Filmamker Shoojit Sircar, in his tweet said: “My dear friend Irfaan. You fought and fought and fought. I will always be proud of you.. we shall meet again… condolences to Sutapa and Babil… you too fought, Sutapa you gave everything possible in this fight. Irfaan Khan salute.”