Irrfan Khan: Actor who found international fame in Slumdog Millionaire

·5-min read

Irrfan Khan, who has died aged 53 from a colon infection after suffering from a neuroendocrine tumour, was one of the few Indian actors whose careers bridged blockbuster movies in his home country and films made by Hollywood and British directors.

The star never left Bollywood – a term he disliked because he felt the Indian film industry was distinctive in itself and owed nothing to others – behind and continued to appear in up to half a dozen of its movies each year after he found success overseas.

Khan came to international attention playing the detective interviewing Dev Patel’s TV quiz show winner in British director Danny Boyle’s rags-to-riches tale Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

He began the interrogation with the words: “I’ve got a desk full of murderers, rapists, extortionists, bum bandits and you. Why don’t you save us both a lot of time and tell me how you cheated?”

After rendering Patel’s Indian ghetto boy-turned-millionaire temporarily unconscious with electric-shock torture, Khan displayed his natural ability to portray three-dimensional characters. The police inspector visibly switches from world-weariness to sympathy and gentle humanity as the boy demonstrates that his head is filled with endless facts.

A year earlier, Khan played a Karachi counterterrorist officer in A Mighty Heart, a critical success for director Michael Winterbottom but a box-office flop. In this real-life story starring Angelina Jolie as the widow of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped by jihadis in Pakistan, he displayed tenacity as the investigator who eventually discovers that the reporter was beheaded.

Having acted as an insomniac detective in Rog (2005), his first starring role in Bollywood after years of playing villains, Khan might have appeared in danger of becoming typecast. But his acting skills were appreciated enough for Hollywood to expand his horizons, even though supporting roles in some of his biggest films were small.

Khan as the detective interviewing Dev Patel’s TV quiz show winner in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (Kobal/Rex)
Khan as the detective interviewing Dev Patel’s TV quiz show winner in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (Kobal/Rex)

In The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), he played a ruthless scientist in the lab where the superhero is bitten by a genetically enhanced spider and develops his extraordinary skills.

Meanwhile, director Ang Lee’s visual masterpiece Life of Pi (2012) cast Khan as the adult Pi Patel narrating his own life story, starting with his 16-year-old self (played by Suraj Sharma) surviving a shipwreck by stowing away on a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger.

Later, while promoting his role as the billionaire owner of a dinosaur park in Jurassic World (2015), Khan told journalists that he was a struggling television actor in Mumbai when the original Jurassic Park film was released in 1993 – and could not afford to buy a ticket to see it.

Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan (he later added the second “R” to Irfan because he preferred the way it sounded phonetically) was born in the Rajasthan village of Tonk, outside Jaipur, in 1967 to Yaseen Khan, who owned a tyre shop, and his wife, Saeeda Begum.

After abandoning ambitions of becoming a cricketer, he trained as an actor at the National School of Drama, where he met Sutapa Sikdar, whom he married in 1995, 11 years after graduating.

In the meantime, Khan worked consistently in television. When Sikdar became a writer of the popular serial Banegi Apni Baat (1993-97), Khan was cast in it as Kumar, an abusive father.

His feature-film break came as Lafcadia, the cold-blooded title character who renounces violence after a mystical vision, in The Warrior (2001), British director Asif Kapadia’s Hindi-language drama set in feudal Rajasthan and the Himalayas.

This mesmerising performance paved the way for English-language parts in Hollywood, as an Indian immigrant father in the US in the clashing-cultures drama The Namesake (2006), a small role as a village elder in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) – specially written for him because director Wes Anderson wanted to work with him – flirting with Natalie Portman over a jewellery transaction in the anthology film New York, I Love You (2008), playing the head of the Consortium in the Da Vinci Code second sequel The Inferno (2016), and falling for Kelly Macdonald’s fellow jigsaw enthusiast in Puzzle (2018).

Khan and Rafe Spall in ‘Life of Pi’ (Moviestore/Rex)
Khan and Rafe Spall in ‘Life of Pi’ (Moviestore/Rex)

But Khan was never seduced by the allure of Hollywood and confirmed his allegiance to Indian cinema when he turned down director Ridley Scott’s offer to star in The Martian in favour of appearing in Piku (2015) as the driver keeping the peace between a father and daughter on a road trip.

In India he revelled in starring roles such as the widower entering into intimate correspondence with a married woman in quirky romantic comedy The Lunchbox (2013), another determined detective in Talvar (2015), a father trying to enhance his social standing in order to get his daughter into a prestigious English school in Hindi Medium (2017), and a similar part in its “spiritual” sequel, Angrezi Medium (2020).

Khan made a foray into American TV with the role of Sunil Sanyal, one of the patients of Gabriel Byrne’s therapist, in the third series of In Treatment, in 2010.

A year later he was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, for his contribution to the arts.

He is survived by his wife and their sons, Babil and Ayan.

Irrfan Khan, actor, born 7 January 1967, died 29 April 2020

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