Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan (7 January 1967 – 29 April 2020), known professionally as Irrfan Khan or simply Irrfan, was an Indian actor who worked in Hindi cinema as well as in British and American films. Cited in the media as one of the finest actors in Indian cinema, Khan’s career spanned over 30 years and earned him numerous accolades, including a National Film Award, an Asian Film Award, and four Filmfare Awards. In 2011, he was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour.
Khan made his film debut with a small role in Salaam Bombay! (1988), which was followed by years of struggle. After starring in the British film The Warrior (2001), he had his breakthrough with starring roles in the dramas Haasil (2003) and Maqbool (2004). He went on to gain critical acclaim for his roles in The Namesake (2006), Life in a… Metro (2007), and Paan Singh Tomar (2011). For portraying the title character in the last of these, he won the National Film Award for Best Actor. Further success came for his starring roles in The Lunchbox (2013), Piku (2015), and Talvar (2015) and he had supporting roles in the Hollywood films The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Life of Pi (2012), Jurassic World (2015), and Inferno (2016). His other notable roles were in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), New York (2009), Haider (2014), and Gunday (2014), and the television series In Treatment (2010). His highest-grossing Hindi film release came with the comedy-drama Hindi Medium (2017), which won him the Filmfare Award for Best Actor, and his final film appearance was in its sequel Angrezi Medium (2020).
As of 2017, his films had grossed $3.6 billion at the worldwide box office. In 2018, Khan was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumour. He died at the age of 53 on 29 April 2020 due to a colon infection. Khan was described by Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian as “a distinguished and charismatic star in Hindi and English-language movies whose hardworking career was an enormously valuable bridge between South Asia and Hollywood cinema”.
Early life and education
Khan was born in Rajasthan into a Muslim family of Pathan ancestry. Khan’s mother, Saeeda Begum Khan was from Jaipur, and his father, Yaseen Ali Khan, was from the Khajuriya village in Rajasthan’s Tonk district, and they ran a tyre business. He spent his childhood in Tonk, and then Jaipur. Irrfan was good at cricket and was selected to play in the CK Nayudu Trophy for emerging players in the under-23 category, a tournament seen as a stepping stone to first-class cricket in India. However, he did not attend as he could not afford travel expenses.
He showed interest in acting under the influence of his maternal uncle who himself was a theatre artist in Jodhpur. In Jaipur, Khan was introduced to noted theatre artists and did several stage performances in the city. Khan completed his MA in Jaipur before joining the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi in 1984 to study acting.
In his early days in Mumbai, he took up a job as an air conditioner repairman and visited the home of his acting inspiration, Rajesh Khanna, in 1984. Later in an interview Irfan stated, “The kind of craze witnessed by Rajesh Khanna has not been duplicated by anyone. He was the biggest and the most real star Bollywood has produced. I’d say stardom is that feeling of being possessed by your idol; you are so overwhelmed with euphoria you lose touch with reality.”
Beginnings, and TV actor (1987–2001)
Khan was offered a minor role in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay!, soon after his graduation from NSD in 1987; his scenes did not make it to the final cut. He played Lenin in a teleplay on Doordarshan titled Laal Ghaas Par Neele Ghode, based on a translation by Uday Prakash of a Russian play by Mikhail Shatrov. He was then cast as a psycho killer, the main antagonist of the show, in the serial Darr. He also played the famous revolutionary, Urdu poet and Marxist political activist of India, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, in Kahkashan, produced by Ali Sardar Jafri. He acted in some of the episodes of Star Bestsellers (aired on Star-Plus). He also appeared in two episodes of the SET India serial Bhanvar. He acted in numerous television serials throughout the 1990s, including Chanakya, Bharat Ek Khoj, Sara Jahan Hamara, Banegi Apni Baat, Chandrakanta, Shrikant, AnooGoonj on Doordarshan, Star Bestsellers (Star Plus), Sparsh and The Great Maratha on DD National.
He featured opposite Roopa Ganguly in Basu Chatterjee’s critically acclaimed drama film Kamla Ki Maut (1989). In the 1990s, he appeared in the critically acclaimed films Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1990), and Such a Long Journey (1998), as well as various other films, which went unnoticed. In 1998, he played Valmiki in Sanjay Khan’s serial Jai Hanuman.
Breakthrough, and national recognition (2001–2008)
Asif Kapadia cast him as the lead in The Warrior, a historical film completed in 11 weeks on location in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. In 2001, The Warrior opened at international film festivals.
Between 2003 and 2004, he acted in Ashvin Kumar’s short film, Road to Ladakh; the film received rave reviews at international festivals. That same year, he played the title role in the critically acclaimed Maqbool, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
His first Bollywood lead role came in 2005 with Rog. His performance was praised by critics; one wrote, “Irfaan’s eyes speak louder than his words and every time he is in frame, be it talking to his buddy Manish or arguing with Suhel, he shows his capability as an actor”. Thereafter, he appeared in several films either playing the leading role or a supporting role as a villain. In 2004, he won the Filmfare Best Villain Award for his role in Haasil. He also played an antagonist in the Telugu film Sainikudu.
In 2007, he appeared in the box office hits The Namesake and Life in a… Metro. His chemistry with Konkana Sen was one of the highlights of the latter; it also won him the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award. These roles were closely followed by his appearances in the international films, A Mighty Heart and The Darjeeling Limited.
Despite his success in Bollywood, he continued to work on television. He anchored Mano Ya Na Mano (airing on STAR One), and hosted Kyaa Kahein.
International success (2008–2020)
Khan played a police inspector in the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, for which he and the cast of the movie won Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. About him, Danny Boyle said, “he has an instinctive way of finding the ‘moral centre’ of any character, so that in Slumdog, we believe the policeman might actually conclude that Jamal is innocent.” Boyle compared him to an athlete who can execute the same move perfectly over and over. “It’s beautiful to watch.”
In 2009, he featured in the film Acid Factory. He appeared as an FBI agent in New York (2009), and opposite Natalie Portman as a Gujarati diamond merchant in the Mira Nair directed segment of the 12 part feature New York, I Love You.
In 2010, he worked on the third season of the HBO series In Treatment, enacting the part of Sunil, who is finding it difficult to come to terms with his wife’s death and loneliness after moving to the New York City borough of Brooklyn.
Khan played Dr. Rajit Ratha in The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012. He played the adult version of Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel in Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Life of Pi, which became a critical and commercial success worldwide. His lead role in Paan Singh Tomar (2012), as the eponymous real-life athlete turned dacoit, won him the National Film Award for Best Actor. In 2013, he starred in The Lunchbox, which won the Grand Rail d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and received a BAFTA nomination, and became his highest-grossing Hindi film to date.
In 2014, Khan appeared in Gunday, which was a moderate box office success. He also made guest appearances in the films The Xpose and Haider, playing an important role in the latter. In 2015, he played the lead role in the film Piku alongside Deepika Padukone and Amitabh Bachchan. Khan co-starred in the 2015 film Jurassic World. In the same year, he also appeared in the acclaimed thriller Talvar in which his performance was praised. He appeared in Jazbaa in October 2015 alongside Aishwarya Rai which was very well received by critics. He was next seen alongside Tom Hanks in the 2016 adaptation of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon thriller Inferno. That same year, he also starred in Madaari, a 2016 Indian social thriller film directed by Nishikant Kamat.
In 2017, Khan appeared in two films, Hindi Medium which was commercially and critically successful. Khan’s portrayal as Raj Batra in Hindi Medium earned him several accolades, one of which was the Filmfare Award for Best Actor. Hindi Medium became a sleeper hit in India and China, becoming his highest-grossing Hindi release, surpassing The Lunchbox. He also starred in No Bed of Roses (2017). As of 2017, his films had grossed US$3.643 billion at the worldwide box office. His next release was Qarib Qarib Singlle opposite Parvathy Thiruvothu , who was making her debut in Hindi cinema. The movie received praise for the story and the performances by the lead.
In 2018, Khan appeared in Karwan, with Dulquer Salmaan, Mithila Palkar and Kriti Kharbanda. He also appeared in Blackmail opposite Kirti Kulhari, the same year.
Khan’s final film appearance was in Angrezi Medium, directed by Homi Adajania, which was released on 13 March 2020.
In September 2015, he was appointed the brand ambassador for “Resurgent Rajasthan”, a campaign by the state government of Rajasthan. He lent his voice to the light and sound show at the war memorial for the Indian army at Vidhan Sabha Road, Jaipur. The show portrayed the valour and courage of Rajasthani soldiers, and their historic and modern triumphs in battle.
In 23 February 1995, Khan married writer and fellow NSD graduate Sutapa Sikdar. It was a love marriage. They had two sons.
In 2012, he changed his first name from “Irfan” to “Irrfan”; he said he liked the sound of the extra “r” in his name. He later dropped “Khan” from his name because—according to a 2016 interview—he wanted his work to define him, not his lineage.
Illness and death
In March 2018, Khan revealed via a tweet that he had been diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumor. He sought treatment in the UK for a year and returned to India in February 2019.
He was admitted to Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital on 28 April 2020, where he started receiving treatment for a colon infection. Khan died the following day at 3:35 PM (IST) from the infection. His mother Saeda Begum, aged 93, had died just four days prior in Jaipur.
Film personalities and literary figures around the globe paid tributes online upon the news of his death.
His death came less than 24 hours before Rishi Kapoor, another well-regarded actor and his co-star from D-Day, died from leukaemia. He is buried at the Versova Kabristan in Mumbai.