Irrfan Khan obituary

Salaam, Irrfan

Print edition : May 22, 2020

Irrfan , who was adjudged the best actor for his performance in “The Lunchbox”, poses with his trophy during the Asian Film Awards in Macau on March 27, 2014. Photo: Philippe Lopez/AFP

The remarkable career of Irrfan Khan (1967-2020) in Indian and international cinema was proof of his relentless pursuit of perfection, and saw him prove his mettle against the best actors and directors in the film industry.

IN an industry where every aspiring actor dreams of a candyfloss romance as launch vehicle, all Irrfan Khan got was a small role in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988). A film that received critical acclaim, it was nevertheless unlikely to transport a newcomer to the top of the popularity charts. However, Irrfan had reason to be grateful for the film; it gave him a toehold in the Indian film industry.

Meanwhile, it was television that helped Irrfan hone his craft, with serials such as “Chandrakanta”, “Chanakya” and “Kahkashan”. Early in his career, he showcased his unusual talent with “Banegi Apni Baat”, a TV serial which had its audience smiling, laughing, and growing wistful in equal measure. It was written by Sutapa Sikdar, later to be Irrfan’s wife. In an interview, Sutapa Sikdar revealed how Irrfan had made her rewrite certain episodes as many as 11 times. It was this mind-boggling pursuit of perfection that bore Irrfan excellent results.

In 2003, the year of blockbusters such as Kal Ho Naa Ho, Baghban, Koi… Mil Gaya and Tere Naam, came Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil, a campus romance starring Jimmy Shergil and Hrishitaa Bhatt. In the year of big stars and bigger banners, Haasil not only managed to carve its own niche, but also gave the Hindi film industry two major talents—the director Tigmanshu Dhulia, and the villain Irrfan, who was the life and soul of Haasil. His portrayal of Ranvijay Singh was so powerful it could burn the screen. It also won him the Filmfare Award for the Best Actor in a Negative Role.

While the role he played in Haasil would have been a comfortable stereotype for any other actor, Irrfan was eager to prove his true mettle. He strove to test his skills opposite the best actors in business, under the best directors. In Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003), Irrfan played the title role along with a stellar cast that included Tabu, Pankaj Kapur as the underworld don Abbaji, and Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri as corrupt policemen. The film not only established Vishal Bhardwaj as a director to reckon with, but also made Bhardwaj realise that Irrfan was a talent to draw upon in the years to come. Bhardwaj, Irrfan and Tabu came together again in Haider (2014), set in conflict-ridden Kashmir. Tabu and Irrfan also starred together in Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006), based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s book of the same name which told the story of a Bengali couple based in the United States. Irrfan and Tabu shared a subtle, unique screen chemistry that brought out the best in each other.

There was a special touch to the success of The Namesake, for it was in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay that Irrfan had debuted 18 years earlier with a role that barely survived the editor’s scissors. The way he had come full circle, from being an also-ran to the protagonist, would itself make for an engrossing novel.

Almost a decade after working with Tigmanshu Dhulia in Haasil, Irrfan returned to star in his Paan Singh Tomar (2011). Irrfan played the title role with consummate ease. The role of an athlete who rebels against the system was tailor-made for him, and ensured the National Award for the Best Actor that year was his.

Thereafter, Irrfan’s career soared to a new high. Every film he worked in became a milestone, making many wonder if he was the best actor in contemporary Hindi cinema. Irrfan silenced that debate with the soft epistolary romance The Lunchbox (2013) and the comedy drama Piku (2015).

International star

As he proved in the succeeding years, Irrfan was meant to fly higher. He starred in Slumdog Millionaire (2008). The film won an Oscar. Then came Life of Pi (2012), followed by Jurassic World (2015) and Inferno (2016). Importantly, Irrfan had well-etched characters to play in each of these films. India’s truly international star had arrived, with style and substance.

His career ran parallel with the dominance of the Khans in the Hindi film industry. Instead of trying to be the fourth Khan after Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir, he opted to be the first Irrfan. In an industry where to be a Khan was to be a star, he dropped “Khan” from his screen name. He was Irrfan, not just another Khan.

The way he went, too, was against the stereotype. Fighting neuroendocrine cancer, and having almost turned the corner, he succumbed to colon infection days after his last film Angrezi Medium released. With the nationwide lockdown announced soon after its release, not many could watch the film. As for Irrfan, he told his wife moments before he breathed his last, “Ammi [his mother who had passed away a few days before] has come to take me.”

From here to eternity, from the world of celluloid dreams to a mother’s warmth, Irrfan completed his journey, aged 53. Born in Tonk, Rajasthan to a devout Muslim family, he defied tradition and cultural mores to chart a journey all his own, and script his own success story.