Irrfan Khan, the quintessential cinematic genius

Khan was among the few South Asian artists who achieved global acclaim through his seamlessly humanistic portrayals of enigmatic characters, adding a considerable theatrical flourish to his roles.

In an acting career that spanned more than 30 years, India’s critically acclaimed actor Irrfan Khan brought an erudite seemliness to an array of cinematic characters with his sensuous voice, enigmatic smile and exquisitely gentle mannerisms. 

Considered one of India’s finest actors, Khan stood in stark contrast to the stereotypical hyper-macho hero of Bollywood, creating a niche grammar of acting in which he subsumed himself in seamless portrayals of a variety of complex, often dramatic or villainous, roles.

Khan, with his distinguishably deep-set eyes, paused diction and subtle modulations, had an ability to hook audiences at a realistic level of emotional resonance, bringing nuance to the roles that often concealed complicated emotions and motivations. He was among the few Indian actors to enjoy international stardom through his roles in Hollywood movies such as Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi, Jurassic Park and The Amazing Spider-Man, while concomitantly establishing himself as a bonafide Bollywood artist.

The actor’s death in Mumbai on 29 April, aged 53, brings an end to an illustrious cinematic career, leaving behind a legacy in which he shall be recognised for bringing a rare intelligence and empathy to his characters. His reputation and recognition was derived from his immaculate command over his artistic skill that allowed him to traverse a huge number of diverse and difficult roles.

Khan’s representative said the actor died after battling a medical complication arising from a colon infection. In 2018, Khan had announced that he was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumour, a rare form of cancer that targets various parts of the body but is curable if the tumour is detected at an early stage. He underwent months of treatment in London before returning to India in 2019. He was last seen in director Homi Adjania’s Angrezi Medium (English Medium), a heartwarming father-daughter tale that was released in March although the movie’s screening was halted because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

The actor’s burial was a muted, low-profile affair with his funeral devoid of many people owing to the ongoing coronavirus restrictions in India. Khan’s wife Sutapa and two sons praised him as someone who strived for perfection, and saw a “rhythm and harmony even in chaos”. A statement from the actor’s representative said that “Khan was a strong soul, someone who fought till the very end and always inspired everyone who came close to him”.


Mourned across the globe, numerous tributes have paid homage to Khan’s legacy – providing insight into his skill and impact.

American actress Mindy Kaling illustrated that Khan’s performances were “defined by his subtlety and sensitivity,” through which “he could do more with silence and many actors could do with a two page Sorkin monologue.” She wrote on her Instagram: “You watched him onscreen and thought ‘I know that person!’ in any role he played, even if he was being chased around Europe in a Da Vinci Code movie with Tom Hanks.” Khan’s Namesake co-star Kal Penn wrote: “Irrfan’s art and humanity will be badly missed. Never seen someone use the beats of silence so beautifully to convey so much about who we are…” Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan described Khan as “an incredible talent” and a “gracious colleague”, who was a prolific contributor to the “world of cinema”. 

“An inspiration to millions, he will be greatly missed,” read a post on the official Twitter account of The Academy. Oscar-winning filmmaker Ang Lee called Irrfan “a great artist, a true gentleman and a brave fighter” while mourning his demise. “His passing away is cinema’s loss. We will miss him dearly. May you Rest In Peace my dear friend,” the filmmaker, who directed Khan in Life of Pi said.

Filmmaker Marc Webb, who directed Khan in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, said he will always be a “dedicated” fan of the actor’s work. “In Irrfan, power and gentleness co-existed perfectly. When he sings to his new wife at the bathroom door in Namesake or speaks of his father in Life of Pi, his talent is positively mystical. He is the most nuanced actor I’ve worked with. I am forever his dedicated fan,” he tweeted.

“[For Americans], he’s in the realm of Jean-Paul Belmondo or Marcello Mastroianni or Omar Sharif, even – clearly from some other culture but having great appeal to be seen as anything from an Everyman type to a very quiet and intelligent sort of sex appeal,” underscored acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair, who cast Khan in Salaam Bombay! in 1988.

Carving out his own space

Khan was born into an orthodox, middle-class Muslim family in Tonk, a small town in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. With no “godfather” in India’s massive Hindi-language cinema to guide him in the initial days of his career, Khan’s work was perhaps cut out for him. He had to carve out a space for himself in an industry where children or friends and relatives of big established actors are lined up for their grand launch into filmdom.

Though Khan’s movie career began with Nair’s Salaam Bombay!, his acting journey took off in 1985 with television show Shrikant, which is based on a novel. An alumnus of Delhi’s National School of Drama that has produced a number of actors in Bollywood and Indian independent cinema, including Shahrukh Khan, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak, Khan found almost instant recognition while acting in the television industry. He landed a diverse set of roles in a number of television shows throughout the 1990s, which included Banegi Apni Baat, Bharat Ek Khoj, Chanakya and Chandrakanta. He also acted in small-budget movies like Private Detective: Two Plus Two Plus One.

15 July 2005: Irrfan Khan as Lafcadia in the film The Warrior, which takes place in feudal Rajasthan in India. (Still from The Warrior)
15 July 2005: Irrfan Khan as Lafcadia in the film The Warrior, which takes place in feudal Rajasthan in India. (Still from The Warrior)

However, Khan’s career trajectory soon began to oscillate between Bollywood and Hollywood as he became an internationally recognised actor. At the turn of the millennium, he first gained global acclaim for his role in British director Asif Kapadia’s directorial debut The Warrior, a 2001 movie set in feudal India in which Khan plays a warrior who abandons his role as the longtime enforcer to a local tyrannical warlord and sets off for the Himalayas in search of peace. The movie won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for Best British Film and was Britain’s entry to the Oscars. For Khan, it opened the doors to Hollywood.

Thereafter, Khan starred in Ashvin Kumar’s short film Road to Ladakh in 2003, in which he received warm reviews on the international festival circuit. In 2003, the Vishal Bharadwaj-directed Maqbool, a gangster reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, became a turning point in Khan’s cinematic career.

The Warrior and Maqbool established Khan as a versatile actor and his acting aesthetic was described variously as sophisticated, non-mainstream and international. Later, his role as a Pakistani investigator in the Angelina Jolie-starring 2007 film, A Mighty Heart (Winterbottom), and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, in which he plays an Indian police officer, further strengthened Khan’s reputation as a skilled actor and recognisable face to global cinephiles. Boyle described Khan’s performance as “beautiful to watch”.

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Global fame called after Khan worked with celebrated auteurs like Ang Lee in his 2012 film Life of Pi, as he was inducted into the genre of blockbuster Hollywood franchise films. In 2012, he played Peter Parker’s arch-nemesis, Dr Ranjit Ratha, in The Amazing Spider-Man, while in 2015, he portrayed Simon Masrani, the multi-billionaire owner of the fictional park in Jurassic World. His last major Hollywood release was in 2016, in the Ron Howard-directed Inferno, in which Khan appeared alongside Hollywood superstars Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones.

In India, the performative intensity of Khan was seen early in his career with Haasil, in which he played the role of a student leader with negative overtones. Some critics termed Khan’s performance as “mind-blowing”. Mira Nair again cast Khan as a lead in the acclaimed 2016 movie The Namesake, in which Khan brought alive the character of a first-generation immigrant from West Bengal living in New York City. His performance, critics concluded, had produced a beautiful performance of empathic brilliance, successfully capturing the internal conflict of immigrants determined to assimilate in the United States. The actor-director duo also teamed up to make New York, I Love You in 2008.

An award-winning career

Khan was bestowed with the Best Actor award at the National Film Awards 2013 for his brilliant performance as a dacoit, or member of a gang of armed robbers, in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar. Under Dhulia’s direction, his performance as a simple farmer, a loyal soldier and a champion athlete who became one of India’s most dreaded dacoits, was gritty and intense. Khan received India’s national film award for this role. 

In the same year, he was the main lead in The Lunchbox (Batra), which is regarded as one of the finest works by Khan. He plays an ageing widower who develops a deep emotional attachment with an unhappy housewife through an accidental exchange of letters. The nuanced richness of emotional variations in his portrayal of an old, lonely and soon-to-be-retired government employee is intensely crafted by the actor.

On his career trajectory and not being typecast in Bollywood movies in 2013, Khan told The Mint: “I am happy to be not labelled. But I think all serious actors working in India have to thank the parallel films of the 1970s and 1980s. Shah [regarded as India’s most versatile performer] showed the way for an actor like me. He said it is possible to do such different roles and survive and succeed in Bombay.”

In 2014, Khan appeared in a crucial cameo in Bharadwaj’s Haider, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He played Roohdar, Bharadwaj’s iteration of Horatio’s Ghost in the movie. In 2015, in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku, Khan paired with leading Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone and completely reworked the clichéd notions of the romantic hero.  

 2004: Irrfan Khan as Yani in Shadows of Time, director Florian Gallenberger’s first feature-length film. (Still from Shadows of Time)
2004: Irrfan Khan as Yani in Shadows of Time, director Florian Gallenberger’s first feature-length film. (Still from Shadows of Time)

Scholar Shreyosi Mukherjee says Khan’s foray into global cinema gave him unprecedented exposure, unlike any of his contemporaries in Bollywood, as well as access to culturally diverse audiences, establishing his prowess as a competent actor. She noted that Khan used this success as a way of introducing a newness and an ideological shift in approaching his Bollywood roles, writing: “Khan’s extensive experience and exposure in transnational projects have allowed him to undercut the centrality and larger-than-life projections of the leading male characters in Bollywood. In Khan’s portrayals, the leading men are flawed and normalised.”

Echoing similar views, The Guardian newspaper columnist Peter Bradshaw noted that Khan’s “hardworking career was enormously valuable as a vital bridge” between South Asian and Hollywood cinema. “He was armed with a sensitive and seductive gaze: his good looks matured in middle age in such a way that he could play dramatic or villainous roles but also romantic leads of a certain age and of a certain emotional wistfulness. You could almost call him Mumbai’s Clooney – although it would be condescending to explain this colossal Indian star in Hollywood terms,” he added.

Khan’s legacy and contribution to the cinematic world is “like a constellation of stars”, as veteran Indian actor Shah underlines in his tribute to Khan. What the self-effacing actor would be most remembered for is the “humanism” he brought to his roles, and how he made them relatable to audiences across the globe. Khan’s subtle, realistic and minimalistic approach to acting made him one of the rare actors of his generation, with his life’s work representing the highest levels of artistry in contemporary cinema. 

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