‘The only time Irrfan is serious is when he speaks of his craft. His voice is low, even and deep, and his unblinking gaze remains fixed on your face, as if demanding an equal level of attention’.
These are the jottings of the impression that Irrfan Khan left on this reporter, a 21-year-old rookie who interviewed him for a lifestyle magazine, six years ago. In the profile, published in mid-2014, I described how the actor was ruthless with himself when criticised, but was trying to slow down. He was mellowing with age, he had said, learning to look at success and failure more objectively, and taking life as it comes.
Irrfan (who later dropped ‘Khan’ from his name, not wanting to be identified with any lineage or religion) passed away on Wednesday in Mumbai after a long battle with cancer. Both onscreen and offscreen, he will be remembered as someone with a slice of introspection in the way he approached anything—coupled with a healthy dose of passion and crystal-clear honesty.
The 53-year-old Bollywood star, famous for films such as The Namesake
, Paan Singh Tomar
, Life of Pi
, The Lunchbox
, passed away at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai on Wednesday morning. He was admitted to the ICU on Tuesday, following a colon infection.
He is survived by his wife, Sutapa Sikdar, and two sons, Babil and Ayan. Condolences poured in from his friends and colleagues in the film industry, who remembered him as a fun-loving person who believed in the merit of fighting a good fight. “My dear friend Irrfan, you fought and fought and fought. I will always be proud of you...we shall meet again..” tweeted filmmaker Shoojit Sarcar, who directed Irrfan in the 2016 Hindi film Piku
, in a tweet.
Swipe for Irrfan's most memorable quotes
In a statement, a representative of the actor’s family said: “Irrfan was a strong soul, someone who fought till the very end and always inspired everyone who was 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.”
For nearly a year after he was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumour, a rare form of cancer, Irrfan and wife Sutapa moved to the UK for treatment. The actor returned to work in 2019 to film Homi Adajania’s comedy-drama Angrezi Medium
[released in March this year], a sequel to the 2017 hit film Hindi Medium
, which narrated how parents perilously navigate India’s school admissions system.
Jaipur-born Irrfan, who was named Saahabzaade Irfan Ali Khan, graduated from the National School of Drama in 1984. He moved to Mumbai and struggled to make headway into the film industry for a long time, despite being cast in a small role in Meera Nair’s Salaam Bombay!
in 1988. He soon took up supporting roles in television serials like Banegi Apni Baat
. He dropped Saahabzaade from his name early on, since he felt the word reflected privilege.
In the early 2000s, Irrfan finally made headway into mainstream Bollywood cinema, often being cast in serious, dark or supporting roles. His initial appearances in films like Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil
(2003), Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool
(2004) and Anurag Basu’s Life in a... Metro
(2007) earned him critical acclaim.
Irrfan also pursued a parallel career in the Hollywood, becoming one of the best known Indian faces in the industry. “I do Hollywood films because they push my abilities as an actor. Their demand for nuances is different. I have to be harsh on myself and exercise those skills,” he had told this journalist in the 2014 interview for Mandate magazine, mentioned earlier. “[I am open to any] Filmmaker who engages me with a script and gives me challenging characters, broadens my outlook toward the craft and helps me evolve.” Added to Irrfan's roster of Hollywood and crossover film outings are supporting appearances in The Namesake
(2006), A Mighty Heart
(2007), Slumdog Millionaire
(2008), Jurassic World
(2015) and Inferno
Around the same time in 2015, Irrfan delivered strong performances in homegrown films including Talvar
(Meghna Gulzar’s film based on the 2008 Noida double murder case) and Jazbaa
. He later shifted gears to dabble more in comedy, with hits such as Tanuja Chandra’s Qarib Qarib Singlle
and Hindi Medium
in 2017; and road film Karwan
and dark comedy Blackmail
Irrfan was amused by how people often assumed he was a no-nonsense person, when he never took himself seriously. “It is probably my face,” he told me, chuckling. This is why, he continued, whenever the industry offered him serious roles, he strived to find elements of lightness with which he could mould his characters.
(This story appears in the 08 May, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)