Legendary actor Irrfan Khan had been battling cancer these last few years. He died in Mumbai earlier today, after being admitted to intensive care on Tuesday. He lost his mother on Saturday. He was 53.
Khan’s most recent film, Angrezi Medium (sequel to the 2017 comedy Hindi Medium) hit streaming platforms in April, after being forced off its theatrical course by the recent pandemic. While a presence like his undoubtedly belongs on the big screen, the more people who have access to his films, the better. He was one of Hindi cinema’s most magnetic actors.
An alumnus of the National School of Drama in New Delhi, Khan’s film career dates back to Mira Nair’s Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay! in 1988. After a string of minor film and TV roles in the ’90s, 2003 proved to be a landmark year for the actor, between his Filmfare Award-winning performance as the villain in Haasil and his lead role in Maqbool, Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Macbeth.
Oscar-winning British film Slumdog Millionaire would prove to be his western breakout in 2008, leading to brief appearances in Hollywood blockbusters like Jurassic World and The Amazing Spider-Man, as well as meatier work in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and season 3 of HBO’s In Treatment. However, this brief Hollywood rendezvous in the 2010s wasn’t Khan’s first foray into international cinema. By then, he’d already played the lead in British filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior — a UK-India-France-Germany co-production — in addition to roles in Nair’s The Namesake, Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited and Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart. Even within India, he’d stepped outside the boundaries of Bollywood, appearing in Telugu film Sainikudu in 2006.
Khan was someone who spoke with his eyes, a talent that allowed him to navigate everything from understated dramatic work, like BAFTA-nominated The Lunchbox, to Bollywood studio comedies like Krazzy 4, in which he played the cleanliness obsessed straight-man to a trio of boisterous comedic costars. He really could do it all. From a ruthless FBI agent (New York) to a sympathetic terror suspect (Road to Ladakh), from stories about Mumbai (Mumbai Meri Jaan) to tales of New York (New York, I Love You), from even more Shakespeare (Haider) to even more comedic fare (Piku).
Of course, no rundown of his achievements would be complete without mentioning his lead role in Paan Singh Tomar, the 2011 period biopic about the eponymous rebel, soldier and medal-winning athlete, for which Khan won not only the Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actor, but India’s National Film Award as well. Both a critical and commercial success, the film proved that Khan could shine as the rare unconventional superstar in an otherwise glossy and nepotistic Bollywood climate.
As my friend and fellow /Film writer Andrew Todd put it, Khan should’ve gone on to have a lengthy career as an elder-stateman actor. His poise and presence have already drawn eyes from all over the world. Being as reserved as he was — letting us peek behind the curtain of his emotions only a little at a time, as if drawing us into mysteries — it seemed he had so much more to give. But he already gave us so much, over a hundred film and TV appearances to look back on, and for that, I am grateful.
He will be missed.
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