From Bollywood To Hollywood: Irrfan Khan Transcended Expectations And The World Got To See Him Shine

Sharan Dhaliwal on the legacy of an Indian acting legend, following his death at the age of 53.

Whenever Irrfan Khan is attached to a film, there is rarely any doubt whether I should watch it. From his stoic performance in The Lunchbox, his powerful depiction of Paan Singh Tomar in the film of the same name or his crossover role in Slumdog Millionaire, he has never disappointed.

Khan was born in Rajasthan, a state in Northern India, to a Muslim family. His aspirations from a young age were to become a cricketer but he was unable to pursue his passion at the time.

He told the Telegraph India: “I played cricket. I wanted to become a cricketer. I was an all-rounder and the youngest one in my team in Jaipur. I wanted to make a career out of it. I was selected for the CK Nayudu tournament I think and then I needed money and didn’t know who to ask. That day I decided I cannot pursue it. I couldn’t have asked for Rs 600 at that time.”

This integrity remained present in his lifetime, Khan was known as someone to speak on his beliefs. Whether it was his views on Bollywood (“I always object to the word Bollywood”) or his admission of falling into the world of India’s skin lightening obsession (“I did try to do it but it made me feel empty”), Khan kept everyone on their toes.

Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox
Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox

The plight of a dark-skinned, unconventional-looking actor is that they will be cast as a villain or side character in most Bollywood films, due to Bollywood associating lighter skin to beauty. Despite this, he transcended these expectations, playing lead roles with Deepika Padukone and Aishwarya Rai.

Although he was perceived as conventionally unattractive, Khan had a looming quality in him that drew you in. Whether it was his talent or resilience, he morphed in his roles from a terrifying villain, to an attractive leading man. His age was always questionable; in some roles he could be mistaken for 60 and others 40. He was a chameleon, distinguished from his large eyes and acclaimed performances.

He had made his decision to become an actor and enrolled in the National School of Drama in Jaipur in 1984.

Khan became a TV actor in 1986, when he got roles in various Indian soaps. His career took off, when he landed a role in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! in 1988, later working with Nair again in acclaimed film The Namesake in 2006.

His performance in The Lunchbox secured my adoration, when he played a widower who begins to receive letters in his lunch service from an unsatisfied married woman. He adopted slight mannerisms for his character, such as a quick shy glance or an uncomfortable shudder and the subtlety created a downpour of emotions. I saw parts of him in everybody.

In Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, starring Shahid Kapoor and Tabu, although Kapoor’s performance was extraordinary, Khan was the person I remember.

When watching Jurassic World, to understand the high heeled running meme that was populating the internet, I let out a gleeful scream when he came on screen.

Irrfan Khan in Jurassic World.
Irrfan Khan in Jurassic World.

This move to Hollywood didn’t feel forced; his talent couldn’t be contained to just one country, the world had to appreciate him. And they did. From small roles in The Amazing Spider-Man and Inferno, to the adult Pi Patel in The Life of Pi, Khan began to cement his name in Hollywood.

For his contribution in the field of arts, Khan was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour. His role in Paan Singh Tomar gained him the National Award for Best Actor and he later won several awards films such as Maqbool, Life In A Metro and The Lunchbox.

On March 5th 2018, Khan sent a tweet, revealing his diagnosis of a rare neuroendocrine disease. It read: “Sometimes you wake up with a jolt with life shaking you up. The last fifteen days, my life has been a suspense story. Little had I known that my search for rare stories would make me find a rare disease.”

On Tuesday 28 April, Irrfan Khan was admitted to hospital in Mumbai, to receive treatment for a colon infection. The following day, his death was announced, four days after his mother’s.

We won’t be able to watch him create something new on our screens, but he leaves a legacy unmatched, not just for his body of work, but his elegance and gratitude to the arts. I will be spending my day watching Piku, The Lunchbox, The Warrior and I might just give Jurassic World another go.


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