Irrfan Khan, the commoner Khan who became a star

Hindustan Times | By
Apr 29, 2020 03:00 PM IST

Irrfan Khan proved in an industry driven by stars and larger-than-life characters that stories about the common man can be powerful too. The actor died on Wednesday after battling cancer valiantly for two years.

Irrfan Khan fought and fought, but on April 29, he died in the presence of his family in Mumbai, having battled cancer for two years, leaving behind a legacy that will be celebrated for generations.

Irrfan Khan lost his battle to cancer on April 29, 2020.
Irrfan Khan lost his battle to cancer on April 29, 2020.

After appearing in several television programmes, the actor made his screen debut in the Academy Award nominated 1988 film, Salaam Bombay!, directed by Mira Nair. In 1986, on a visit to the National School of Drama, Nair, looking for trained actors to cast as street kids in the film, spotted a young Irrfan in the basement. “I noticed his focus, his intensity, his very remarkable look - his hooded eyes. I clocked him,” she recalled years later in a biography.

Irrfan sobbed all night when Nair told him that his part was going to be edited down ‘to merely nothing.’ “But it changed something within me. I was prepared for anything after that,” he said.

Irrfan Khan in a still from Salaam Bombay!
Irrfan Khan in a still from Salaam Bombay!

What followed was one of the most magnificent careers in the history of Indian cinema. Irrfan proved in an industry forever reliant on star power and larger-than-life characters that stories about common men could be just as powerful. In the 1990s, he appeared in the critically acclaimed films Ek Doctor Ki Maut and Such a Long Journey (1998) and various other films which went unnoticed.

 Watch | Actor Irrfan Khan passes away in Mumbai; tributes pour in from celebrities


His fortunes turned when he appeared in the lead role in director Asif Kapadia’s 2001 drama, The Warrior, propelling him to popularity not only in India, but also internationally. A few years later, he played the title role in the critically acclaimed Maqbool, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. His first Bollywood lead role came in 2005, in Rog, produced by Mahesh Bhatt.

Also read: Irrfan Khan dies at 53: A timeline of his valiant fight against neuroendocrine tumour

Irrfan reunited with Nair in 2006, this time as the lead of her film, The Namesake. The film served as a grand announcement of his talents in Hollywood. A role in the television show In Treatment followed, after which the big studios and filmmakers came calling. Irrfan played Dr. Rajit Ratha in The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012. In the same year, he heplayed the adult version of Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel in Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Life of Pi, which went on to make more than $600 million worldwide, winning four Oscars. A year later, Irrfan starred in the bittersweet romance The Lunchbox. The film was screened at International Critics’ Week at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and later won the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award also known as Grand Rail d’Or.

Irrfan Khan in a still from Life of Pi.
Irrfan Khan in a still from Life of Pi.

Irrfan balanced his international popularity with a string of successes in India. His portrayal of dacoit-turned-athlete Paan Singh Tomar in the acclaimed biographical sports drama Paan Singh Tomar (2011), garnered him the National Film Award for Best Actor and a Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actor. He went on to feature in the commercially and critically successful films Haider (2014), Gunday (2014), Piku (2015) and Talvar (2015). In 2015, he also appeared as the second lead in Jurassic World, by far his most successful film commercially.


But in 2018, the actor announced to the world that he’d been diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumour. “I hope to be back with more stories to tell,” he’d written in a social media post back then. But Irrfan’s condition would allow him to work in only one film during this time, the recently released comedy drama Angrezi Medium, a sequel to his 2017 blockbuster Hindi Medium.

Before the film’s release, the actor had said in a heartfelt video message “that there are some ‘unwanted guests’ in my body and they’re keeping me busy.” And they did. But Irrfan’s body of work will survive, summed up by the sentiment of his Angrezi Medium co-star Kareena Kapoor Khan, who once said: “I have worked with all the Khans - Shah Rukh, Salman, Aamir and Saif. But for me, it is an honour and privilege to work with Irrfan Khan.”

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