An Ode to the late Irrfan Khan

Irrfan Khan leads a modest and humble life and left a legacy that can inspire and motivate us.

One of Bollywood’s favourite actors and Hollywood’s go-to Indian guy, Irrfan Khan not only left a mark on Indian Cinema but Western too. He impressed critiques and fans with his acting skills while winning the hearts of his colleagues on film sets. The world lost a gem on 29th April 2020. Here’s a celebration of his life in words.

Early life

Born as Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan on 07 January 1967, Irffan was born into a Muslim family of Pathans. His mother’s family had a royal lineage and his father was a wealthy, self-made businessman who owned a tyre business. Irrfan was a cricket enthusiast and used to play quite well. He was selected to play in the CK Nayudu Trophy, and playing for the Indian team was just a few steps away. But Irrfan could not afford travel expenses and to let go of his dream.

Under the influence of his maternal uncle, who himself was a theatre artist in Jodhpur, Irrfan Khan did some theatre in Jaipur. After completing his MA and lying about his theatre experience, he joined the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi in 1984 to study acting. He did not have much support from his family but he did have an incredible passion for the craft. “No-one could have imagined I would be an actor, I was so shy. So thin. But the desire was so intense.”, Irrfan once said in an interview.

Debut and years of Struggle

In 1988 Irrfan made his debut in the Mira Nair film Salaam Bombay! He was offered a minor role, but even that was reduced in the final cut. After that he came across numerous roles on television but his eyes were set on the big screen. He had small roles in a number of TV shows that aired on Star and Zee. But he thought that the work he did there was uninspiring.

After a while, he did star in some critically acclaimed pieces of TV and cinema like, Kamla Ki Maut (1989), Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1990), and Such a Long Journey (1998). But his big break came in 2001 when he was cast as the lead in Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior. The Warrior was critically appreciated and opened at a number of international film festivals. Along with the movie, Irrfan’s acting was also appreciated.

Read More: 30 Most Cinematic Frames from Hindi Cinema

Path to Greatness

After The Warrior, Irrfan made waves in Bollywood and was cast in a number of movies as the lead or as the villain. He did movies like, Rog (2005), Maqbool (2004) an adaptation of Macbeth, Haasil (for which he won Filmfare Best Villain Award). He also appeared in highly appreciated and acclaimed movies like Life in a Metro and The Namesake. By that time, he was a highly appreciated and liked actor in Bollywood. In 2007 Wes Anderson wrote a small role specifically for him in The Darjeeling Limited – just so he could work with him.

The pace of his growth after The Warrior was incredible. Some of his performances were so iconic that he received praise from Western critics and media. But he never forgot his roots, even when he was pitched leads in Bollywood movies made by the biggest directors. From time to time, he did small independent films to keep his creative side alive.

Global Success

In 2008, Irrfan was cast in Slumdog Millionaire. The movie directed by Danny Boyle went on to win 8 out of 10 Oscar nominations. The movie was a huge success and it was probably the best thing to happen in Irrfan’s film career. His acting was exposed to a very large audience globally. He was highly appreciated by the biggest names in Hollywood for the role and won Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.

After Slumdog Millionaire, Irrfan Khan became a familiar face for the Hollywood audience. He worked in a number of movies and short films. He featured in The Amazing Spider-ManLife of Pi and Inferno. He got great responses for all of these films.

Irrfan could have made his filmography even better with films like InterstellarBody of Lies and The Martian. But he loved Indian cinema and chose movies like Pihu and the Lunchbox. The Lunchbox was one of his biggest films that came later in his career. It won the Grand Rail d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and received a BAFTA nomination. The film along with Irrfan’s performances received rave reviews.

In recent times two of his most successful movies were Hindi Medium (2007) and his last movie Angrezi Medium (2020). Both the movies were highly appreciated by both, the critics and the audience. These two movies were very different from the grim and serious roles that Irrfan was used to play. These were more fun and light-hearted and as a result, were loved by the Indian audience more than anything.

The Legacy

In 2018, Irrfan Khan was diagnosed with neuroendocrine tumours – which affects cells that release hormones into the bloodstream. In a tweet announcing his illness, he said, “Life is under no obligation to give us what we expect,”. He underwent treatment in the UK for a year and returned to India in February of 2019. On 29th April 2020, Irrfan left the world due to a colon infection.

His death was mourned by people all over the world. Despite being one the biggest stars who constantly appeared in Hollywood movies, Khan was known for his modesty and integrity. He had an inexplicable grace in his attitude that often carried itself to his performances. The sheer effortlessness that characterized his performances made the characters relatable and real. He knew how to draw the audience to the story.

He left us in his prime. At 53 he had so much more to give. So many more performances. So many more hearts that he could win. But his legacy lives on. We have numerous movies and short films to watch and appreciate his acting.

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