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Arts & Culture

The Legacy of Irrfan Khan, A Cinematic Indian Everyman

Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox."
courtesy still
Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox."

You might recognize him by his slightly diffident walk, his knowing chuckle or his somewhat prominent eyes. You may have seen him as adult Pi in "Life of Pi," the police inspector in "Slumdog Millionaire," or even a widower in "The Lunchbox."

Irrfan Khan, considered by many to be one of the finest actors in contemporary Indian cinema, took his final bow late last month, at the age of 53, in Mumbai, India, succumbing to a colon infection brought on by his bout with a rare form of cancer, an endocrine tumor.

His death, said San Diego-based Yazdi Pithavala, lead reviewer for the film podcast, “Moviewallas,” is a loss for both Indian cinema and cinema in general.


Khan was not considered one of the typical stars of Indian cinema, a position usually held by those who looked like “a typical Bollywood hero,” said writer and radio host Sandip Roy, currently based in Kolkata. Nor was he from any of the so-called Bollywood royal families, the Kapoor family, for example, like Bollywood star Rishi Kapoor, who also died recently at the age of 67.

Instead, the critically-acclaimed Khan was what Bishwanath Ghosh, an Indian writer and newspaper editor currently based in Kolkata, called “an Indian everyman.”

“Irrfan not only looked the guy next door, but he also played the guy next door, which allowed him to work into Indian hearts,” said Ghosh. "That’s why, when he died, people took the loss personally.”

Khan, a Muslim, died on April 29th, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He was buried in Mumbai the same day, according to Muslim practice. Despite the quarantine lockdown which prevented the normal crowds who would have shown up to pay their last respects, family members and a handful of friends and colleagues were able to accompany the body to the cemetery.

Diffidently charming, with a gaze whose intensity leapt off the the screen, Khan had an uncanny way of connecting with the audience. His role as Ashoke, the Bengali immigrant in Mira Nair's "The Namesake," was a master class in tracing a character from his arrival in the U.S. as new Ph.D. student, to an arranged marriage, to happy family man who dies suddenly in his 50's. So vested are both Indian and non-Indian audiences in Khan's character, that his death hits them like the death of a family member.


It was this extraordinary ability to intelligently sink into his parts, an unassuming versatility that took him from theater to television to Indian cinema and beyond to international productions over a 30-year span.

Beloved by Indian film-goers, Khan built his career playing diverse, richly nuanced characters such as a wealthy poet romancing a young widow in the light comedy, "Qarib Qarib Singlle" (2018) to heavier, more serious roles like the dogged inspector in "Talvar" (2015), a box office hit based on a true crime case.

American viewers were introduced to Khan during the mid-2000's, encountering him in films like Danny Boyle’s "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008), and Ang Lee’s "Life of Pi" (2013), two films for which he won an Oscar. More adventurous viewers might have seen him in Mira Nair’s "The Namesake" (2006), or Ritesh Batra’s charming box office success, "The Lunchbox" (2012), in which a widower receives a message meant for someone else, and falls in love with the sender, a role which won him international acclaim.

“Irrfan Khan did not have the looks or physique of a typical Bollywood hero and that in a way prevented him from being trapped in the star trap many others are where they are unable to age or take risks with their performances. He has played menacing negative characters and more conventional heroes as well as the occasional comic role. But his hunger to push himself as an actor rather than rest on his laurels was always apparent,” said Roy.

According to Pithavala, Khan was different than many of his counterparts in that he rose through drama school, refining his craft.

“He had great respect for acting … which is why he was able to play (the) Macbeth (character) in "Maqbool" (2003), based on “Macbeth.” You can see as Macbeth (Maqbool) loses control, it is absolutely terrifying.”

Born in Jaipur in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Khan was the son of a zamindar- or middle-class landed notable. Forbidden to watch films as a child, Khan would sneak into cinemas and dream of being an actor in secret, even though he expected to join his father’s business as a tire merchant. However, a failed career in cricket and a scholarship to the National School of Drama (NDM) in Delhi set him on the path of television and film, training him to dig deep into his roles. One of his first breaks came when he was cast, shortly after graduating from NDM, in Mira Nair’s 1988, "Salaam Bombay!" as a letter writer. Much of his small role ended up on the cutting room floor, but his work was striking enough that other directors soon took notice.

Khan also met his wife, screenwriter/producer Sutapa Sikdar, at NDM, with whom he would collaborate on his dialogue and who would eventually produce two of his most popular films.

Thanks to the leading role in the film "The Warrior" (2001), a historical drama, Khan’s career started to break out of the small roles and TV parts he had been playing, leading to major roles in over 50 well-received Hindi-language films such the recent box-office hit, "Hindi Medium" (2017), a comedy about parents hoping to get their daughter into an upwardly mobile school.

Eventually, Khan’s no frills acting and ability to imbue even the most questionable character with a sense of humanity, led foreign directors to cast him. Mira Nair’s "The Namesake," about a Bengali Ph.D student creating a life in the U.S., was his transition role, helping him move into more Hollywood vehicles such as "The Darjeeling Limited" (2007), "Jurassic World" (2015) and "Puzzle" (2018), his last Hollywood film.

“One should note that not all Indian actors want to take the risky step of stepping away from the adulation and fans in India and take a gamble on U.S. markets, but Irrfan did. And that shows his commitment to his craft,” Roy said.

Both Roy and Yazdi Pithavala credit Khan’s rise in the American market to more open attitudes towards Indian culture and timing.

“He’s able to play a conventional Indian, an everyman, and doesn’t ham it up for the American audience," Pithavala said.

As the Indian diaspora grew in the U.S., I think the West got more comfortable with Indian characters beyond an Apu caricature and an actor like Irrfan Khan was in the right place at the right time,” Roy added.

For Bishwanath Ghosh, whose latest book, “Aimless in Banares,” explores the beloved Indian city, some of Khan’s most interesting films are “Haasil" (2003). Brilliant, briliant movie. "Haasil", "Life…in a Metro" (2007), "Blackmail" (2018). In that order.”

For Roy, whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers and whose book “Don’t Let Him Know,” draws on his life both in India and the U.S., his relationship with Khan’s work is a little more complicated.

“(Khan’s) roles got under the skin of the characters. My personal favorite for emotional reasons remains "The Namesake" because that story of the Bengali immigrant was so close to mine and how beautifully he captured the nuances of that kind of quiet character.”

Like many Western viewers, Pithavala discovered Khan in "The Namesake," “and I was completed bowled over by the one-two punch of 'The Lunch Box,'" he said.

Although Khan was somewhat underused in some of the American films he was cast, his understated interpretations and deeply expressive face put a unique spin on every role he undertook, be it a supporting role in Dan Brown’s "Inferno" (2016), or the title role of a modest barber whose life is turned upside down when a now famous childhood friend comes to shoot a film in his village in "Billu" (2009).

Khan’s death, ironically close to the same age as his character Ashoke in "The Namesake," leaves both Indian and International cinema without one of the most complete actors in Indian cinema today - able to play fully fleshed out characters in Indian cinema as well as Indian characters in international films with a clear agency of their own and not a stereotype.

“Losing Irrfan Khan so young. I don’t see another actor in the same mold,” said Pithavala, calling Khan one of the most “authentic” actors in contemporary Indian cinema. “Hopefully someone will be able to pick it up.”

Khan is survived by his wife, Sutapa Sikdar, and two sons, Babil and Ayan. He also leaves behind dozens of memorable characters in films that have redefined Indian Cinema for decades to come.

Recommended viewing:

(available on streaming services)

"Maqbool" (2003)

"The Namesake" (2006)

"A Mighty Heart- The story of Daniel Pearl" (2007)

"The Lunchbox" (2013)

"Talvar" (2015)

"Hindi Medium" (2017)