Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan died at age 53. Here biographer Aseem Chhabra shows how the actor has also become one of his biggest stars in the West.
In 2007, Irrfan came to New York to promote Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, an investigation into the kidnapping and murder of South Asian Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl.
In the middle of interviews with him and his castmates, including Angelina Jolie, Irrfan called me aside and talked to me in Hindi.
He asked if anything was going on – if people recognized him and if he had a chance to get more work in the West.
A powerful heart was Irrfan’s second international project. Her first, Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006) – a story about American Indian immigrants, financed by a Hollywood studio – was still showing in some cinemas in New York and elsewhere.
Yes, certainly something was definitely going on, I told Irrfan.
I didn’t know any other Bollywood actor who had two films showing in US theaters at the same time. And later that year, Irrfan was back, playing a small supporting role in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited.
Irrfan Khan was trained as a theater actor at India’s prestigious National Drama School, but later struggled to work as a television actor.
His first big break was in the British warrior Asif Kapadia’s film The Warrior (2001). The Bafta winning film was shown in theaters with the endorsement of the late filmmaker Anthony Minghella.
In 2007, Irrfan was already a star in Bollywood, India’s Indian film industry. He did not have to take on projects outside India, but as an actor he was always looking to face new challenges.
His big break came the following year – Danny Boyle’s unexpected hit film Slumdog Millionaire.
Slumdog made stars overnight for his young protagonists – Freida Pinto and Dev Patel. But it also opened doors for Irrfan. He got an agent and manager in the USA and there was no turning back.
Soon he got expensive projects – The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), although he has a rather small role, Inferno (2016) and even Jurassic World (2015).
There is a story that Irrfan told the press when promoting Jurassic World. When the original Jurassic Park opened in 1993, Irrfan was a television actor in Bombay (now Mumbai). He had no money to buy a ticket to see the film.
About 22 years later, he played a key role in a franchise film that grossed $ 1.7 billion worldwide. Suddenly, Irrfan became the most successful Indian actor in a Hollywood film.
But, despite other major projects in the West – he played a key role in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012) – Irrfan had to make difficult decisions, whether to accept big Hollywood films or to work on smaller films, but prestige in India.
This problem has come up a few times.
In 2015, he said no when working on Ridley Scott’s The Martian, rather than choosing a charming Piku love story set in Delhi and Kolkata (Calcutta).
“He was thinking about what to do and he kept asking me,” said Piku director Shoojit Sircar when I interviewed him for Irrfan’s biography.
“I was wondering, possibly for him, who is Shoojit Sircar? He is nobody compared to a Hollywood director.”
Irrfan also said no to Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies (2008). And his biggest regret was losing Christopher Nolan’s Intersteller (2014), because his smaller, India-based project, The Lunchbox, was being filmed at the same time.
This is a sign of the star that Irrfan has become, especially after the Slumdog Millionaire.
He could have followed the path of list A projects, but in 2018 he starred in his first American indie, a small film called Puzzle, where he played an eccentric and wealthy man, alongside Kelly Macdonald.
The world was opening up to Irrfan and he was in his 50s. Then, in the spring of 2018, he revealed that he was suffering from a neuroendocrine tumor. Soon he left for London for treatment.
In two years of fighting and treating cancer, Irrfan managed to complete a Hindi-language film, Angrezi Medium (2020).
There was a lot of promise, a lot more roles to play. Fortunately, he left behind a great treasure trove of films that his fans can watch.