Obituary: Irrfan Khan, superstar of Indian cinema who crossed over into Hollywood blockbusters

Irrfan Khan, actor. Born: 7 January 1967, in Jaipur, India. Died: 29 April 2020 in Mumbai, aged 53.
Irrfan Khan in 2009 (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)Irrfan Khan in 2009 (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
Irrfan Khan in 2009 (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

Although he worked largely in film and television in his native India, Irrfan Khan will be immediately familiar to western audiences from Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi, in which he played the title character as an adult, and the Hollywood blockbuster 
franchises Jurassic Park and Spider-Man.

Dark, handsome, with piercing, heavily lidded eyes and a powerful screen presence, Khan could play romantic lead or sinister villain, or something in between – sometimes the audience was not too sure whether to cheer or boo. In Inferno, he appears to be on the side of the hero Robert Langdon, played by Tom Cruise, but this being a Dan Brown adaptation the narrative web is more intricate than anything in Spider-Man.

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Western arthouse audiences first became aware of Khan 20 years ago when he starred in the award-winning Channel 4 film The Warrior, playing a sort of Indian samurai who turns his back on violence to seek a more peaceful life, only to discover it is not so easy to escape your past.

A deeply committed and fastidious actor, who would sit up until 3am considering scripts, Khan was already a superstar in India and had appeared in several independent European films by the time he started taking Hollywood roles, with a certain amount of reluctance it seems.

He claimed he was persuaded to take the role of the unscrupulous doctor responsible for the creation of the super-villain The Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man by his young sons, who were big Spidey fans, rather than by the big pay cheque with which Marvel hoped to lure him into their web.

There was a certain majesty about Irrfan Khan on screen – he was descended from Afghan warriors and his very name means ruler or king, as in Genghis and Kublai, and yet Irrfan Khan emerged from a relatively humble background. His father had a business selling tyres. He was born in 1967 into a Muslim community in the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan. He was originally Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan – the second R came later after he had started acting, because he felt it rolled better of the tongue. Latterly he styled himself simply as Irrfan.

He was a promising young cricketer and might have pursued it as a career, but instead he went to study at the National School of Drama in New Delhi and by the mid-1980s he was already appearing in Indian television series. Despite his relatively young age, his Internet Movie Database entry lists more than 150 film and television credits.

He worked mainly in Indian television, with some local film roles, though he had a small role in the Channel 4 film Salaam Bombay! in 1988. In 1995 he married Sutapa Sikdar, a scriptwriter whom he had known since they were at drama school together. In one interview she said: “He was always focused. I remember when he would come home, he would head straight for the bedroom, sit on the floor, and read books. The rest of us would be hanging around gossiping.” Sikdar recalled that later when they worked together on the Indian soap opera Banegi Apni Baat he asked for endless rewrites of the script. He appeared in more than 300 episodes of the show in the mid-1990s and also served as director.

But on the whole a mix of low-budget Indian television and periods of inactivity was proving a tough gig for Khan, who admitted that there were times when he considered quitting the business before being cast in the title role in The Warrior and coming to the attention of overseas audiences and producers. It screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival, was a hit on the arthouse circuit and won the Bafta award for Best British Film.

In 2003 he played the title character of Maqbool, a retelling of Macbeth with the Scottish king transformed into an Indian gangster, and in 2008 he won an Indian Academy Award for his performance in the musical Life in a Metro, alongside Shilpa Shetty. But it was Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire that really boosted his international career that same year. He played the police inspector who subjects Dev Patel’s TV quiz contestant to a tougher interrogation than Major Ingram ever faced.

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After Slumdog Millionaire Khan was able to balance roles in Indian and international films, including Jurassic World, in which he was the ill-fated billionaire owner. In 2016 Sony Pictures decided to open Inferno in India first because Khan was such a big star there.

He also balanced big-budget movies and smaller, independent films, such as The Lunchbox, a gentle drama with Khan as a middle-aged Mumbai accountant who embarks on a tentative romance after the wrong lunchbox is delivered to his work station. It was a prize-winner at Cannes and one of the favourites for the Oscar for best foreign-language film until an Indian film jury controversially decided to submit another film instead, apparently because they considered that it did not reflect well on India to suggest that a mistake could be made in the delivery of office lunchboxes and such a horrendous mistake was simply not believable.

In 2018 Khan attended the Edinburgh Film Festival along with Scottish co-star Kelly Macdonald when their film Puzzle was chosen for the opening night gala. It proved to be one of his last films as he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. He is survived by his wife and their two sons.

Brian Pendreigh



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