The Legacy of a Trailblazer
Associated with some of the most unconventional roles essayed with remarkable ease, Irrfan Khan rose to fame not only for his ability to deliver stunning performances but his humble demeanor. As untimely death cut short his meteoric rise, we rewind and relook at the Padma Shri recipient actor’s career
Everyone knew Irrfan Khan was suffering from a rare variant of cancer, but when he sent out a video message to help promote his last film, Angrezi Medium, his fans hoped he would be back to blaze up the silver screen again. But when news of his death came during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was more than just a bolt from the blue. It was as if a wave of collective and simmering grief took over. There was no show, no public mourning, but, the void was certainly palpable. In life, and in death, Irrfan defined dignity. No one knew that it was to be his last appearance on screen, but everyone bowed their head in sombre acceptance.
When his contemporaries in Indian cinema were busy pandering to the whims of the box office and counting millions, Sahibzaade Irfan Ali Khan (his real name) chose to play unconventional and challenging roles in India and abroad. The films he was associated with in Hollywood — Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart (2007), based on the murder of the Wall Street Journal’s South Asia correspondent Daniel Pearl, in which he starred with Angelina Jolie; Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006) and then in 2008 Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire — catapulted him beyond the Hindi film industry and made sure he was as feted in the festival circuit as well as he was recognised in the world of commercial cinema. Well-known to both Indian and international audiences, he had been protean on-screen, playing a variety of characters with finesse, be it a police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire, scientist Rajit Ratha in The Amazing Spider-Man or the grown up Pi Patel in Life of Pi.
He received the Padma Shri in 2011, India’s fourth-highest civilian award. In truth, few actors can claim to have mastered multiple genres as well as Irrfan did. In an obituary, BBC hailed him as “the most successful Indian actor to perform in a Hollywood film.” A veteran of nearly 80 films, not many know that he almost gave up acting in his 30s – after an unrewarding decade in TV soaps. His ultimate aim was to make his mother, who passed away just about a week before he did, happy. “I often imagined giving my mother this big suitcase crammed with currency notes – like gangsters do. It shouldn’t be a surprise I opted for dubious means,” the actor had laughed in an earlier interview. After completing his training from National School of Drama in 1987, Khan moved to Mumbai, where he acted in various TV serials. This stint on television and sporadic appearances on stage kept him above water during his struggling days. It was at drama school that he also met his future wife – writer Sutapa Sikdar. “He was always focused. I remember when he would come home, he would head straight to the bedroom, sit on the floor, and read books. The rest of us would be hanging around gossiping,” she recalls. Known for his amazing versatility there is not a role that Irrfan could not play with style. But he never distinguished between commercial and parallel cinema. Maybe a reason why despite having tasted success in Bollywood, he kept venturing to Hollywood for challenging projects.
Irrfan was pining to be on the big screen. His big break was a rather small role – almost a cameo – in Mira Nair’s acclaimed Salaam Bombay in 1988. After a decade of hundreds of uninspiring roles and numerous unsuccessful movies, things changed when London-based Asif Kapadia offered him the lead in The Warrior, which was shot in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. In 2001 the movie was screened and appreciated in several film festivals, making Irrfan Khan a known face, the world over.
According to Irrfan, he wanted to do films that leave a longer impact, which spoke to him and which kept coming back even after the end scene. He said he preferred movies that built a longer relationship with the audience. The brilliant actor had once said, “I am content and happy as a soul who’s in search of excellence and, who still hasn’t made peace with his existence and the mystery of life”. It was probably this very idea that constantly motivated Irrfan to outperform himself with every role. His brilliance had no parallel in contemporary Indian cinema. Irrfan’s untimely demise has a left a large void and true lovers of cinema are bound to miss the cinematic genius of the actor’s mastercraft forever.