Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan died at the age of 53. Here, biographer Aseem Chhabra describes how the actor also became 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 the Wall Street Journal’s South Asia correspondent, Daniel Pearl.
In the midst of interviews with him and his co-stars, including Angelina Jolie, Irrfan took me aside and spoke to me in Hindi.
He asked if something was going on – if people recognized it and if he had a chance of getting more work in the West.
A Mighty Heart was Irrfan’s second international project. Her debut, The Namesake (2006) by Mira Nair – a story of American Indian immigrants funded by a Hollywood studio – was still playing in some cinemas in New York and elsewhere.
Yes, something was definitely going on, I said to Irrfan.
I didn’t know of any other Bollywood actor who had two movies playing in American theaters at the same time. And later this 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 the prestigious National Theater School of India, but then struggled to work as a television actor.
His first big break was in the film by British British director Asif Kapadia The Warrior (2001). The winning film Bafta was presented in cinemas with the support of the late filmmaker Anthony Minghella.
In 2007, Irrfan was already a star in Bollywood, India’s Hindu film industry. He did not have to undertake projects outside of India, but as an actor, he was always looking for new challenges.
His big break came the following year – Danny Boyle’s unexpectedly successful film Slumdog Millionaire.
Slumdog made the stars of its young leads overnight – Freida Pinto and Dev Patel. But it also opened doors to Irrfan. He managed to find an agent and manager in the United States and there was no turning back.
Soon he landed major projects – The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), although a fairly 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 troubled television actor in Bombay (now Mumbai). He couldn’t afford to buy a ticket to see the movie.
Some 22 years later, he played a key role in a franchise film that earned $ 1.7 billion (£ 1.4 billion) worldwide. Irrfan suddenly became the most successful Indian actor in a Hollywood film.
But despite other big projects in the West – he played a key role in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012) – Irrfan had to make tough decisions, whether it’s accepting great Hollywood movies or working on smaller but prestigious films in India.
This problem has occurred a few times.
In 2015, he refused to work on The Martian by Ridley Scott, choosing instead a charming love story Piku, which takes place in Delhi and Kolkata (Calcutta).
“He didn’t know what to do and he kept asking me,” Piku director Shoojit Sircar told me when I interviewed him for Irrfan’s biography.
“I thought, maybe to him, who is Shoojit Sircar?” He’s nobody compared to a Hollywood director. “
Irrfan also said no to Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies (2008). And his biggest regret was to miss Christopher Nolan’s Intersteller (2014), because his smallest project based in India, The Lunchbox, was filmed at the same time.
It is a sign of the star that Irrfan had become, especially after Slumdog Millionaire.
He could have followed this path of prominent projects, but in 2018 he starred in his first American indie, a sweet little film called Puzzle where he played an eccentric rich man, alongside Kelly Macdonald.
The world was opening up for Irrfan and he was in his early 50s. Then in the spring of 2018, he revealed that he had a neuroendocrine tumor. Soon he left for London for treatment.
In two years of fighting and treating cancer, Irrfan was able to finish a film in the Hindi language Angrezi Medium (2020).
There were so many promises, so many more roles to play. Fortunately, he has left behind a great treasure trove of movies that his fans can watch.