Irrfan Khan, Gone Too Soon

On Film / The Daily — Apr 29, 2020
Irrfan Khan in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013)

Irrfan Khan, the Indian actor best known to international audiences as the police investigator in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and as the adult Pi Patel in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012), was only fifty-three when he was admitted to a hospital in Mumbai last week. He died on Wednesday morning. “Khan had a reputation for modesty and integrity,” writes the Guardian’s Andrew Pulver, “and news of his death sent India into mourning, prompting actors, fans, and politicians from across the world to express their sadness at his death.” For Variety, Patrick Frater has gathered tributes from such luminaries of Indian cinema as Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Aamir Khan as well as from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Khan grew up in a village near the city of Tonk in western India before heading off to New Delhi to study at the National School of Drama. “First, I pursued cricket,” he told Nosheen Iqbal in the Guardian in 2013, “then I tried business, but I quickly got bored. Cut, cut, cut to drama school. No one could have imagined I would be an actor, I was so shy. So thin. But the desire was so intense, I thought I’d suffocate if I didn’t get admission.”

Khan landed a small role as a letter writer in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988), and as the BBC reports, he “was devastated when his character hit the cutting room floor.” Nair would make it up to him by casting him opposite Tabu as the husband and wife in an arranged marriage in The Namesake (2006), a story that spans nearly three decades. “What holds it together are the subtle loving performances by Tabu and Khan,” wrote Roger Ebert. “They never overplay, never spell out what can be said in a glance or a shrug, communicate great passion very quietly.”

Khan had spent most of the 1990s working in Indian television, and he found role after role so unsatisfying that he was tempted to give up acting. Then British director Asif Kapadia arrived with the screenplay for The Warrior (2001), an atmospheric tale of a hitman who renounces violence but must then take on another fighter sent to kill him. “As soon as we met, I knew we had our guy,” Kapadia recalled in the Guardian in 2002. “He had a real presence and I knew he could carry the film.”

Talking to the BBC today, Danny Boyle notes that Peter Rice, who eventually picked up Slumdog Millionaire for Fox Searchlight, advised him to cast Khan, even though the role would be relatively minor. “But Irrfan saw the possibility of guiding our audience with his dignity, his grace, his charm, his intelligence, and his calmness, through this crossword puzzle of a film,” says Boyle. Wes Anderson has said that he wrote a small role for Khan in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) just to create an opportunity to work with him. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw suggests that “the actual star-making breakthrough came with his lead role in the real-life drama Paan Singh Tomar [2012],” in which Khan plays a soldier who competes as a runner in the Asian Games before becoming a rebel bandit. The character “was perfect for Khan’s ability to suggest mainstream heroism,” writes Bradshaw, “but also a kind of capo di tutti i capi bad-guy aura, all encompassed in a still watchfulness in the eyes.”

Film scholar Omar Ahmed has long been captivated by Khan’s on-screen presence. “It was more than just charisma,” he tweets. “There was something else at work when he performed. The camera loved him.” The performance Ahmed returns to over and again is Khan’s turn as a mild-mannered office worker who finds himself exchanging handwritten notes with a neglected housewife in Ritesh Batra’s debut feature, The Lunchbox (2013). When the film arrived in the States following its Critics’ Week premiere in Cannes, the New York TimesA. O. Scott found that it had “the measured pace and classical restraint of a romance from the ’30s or ’40s.” Khan “relishes understatement, occasionally allowing the character’s suppressed emotion to peek out from behind his quiet, standoffish demeanor.” Colin Trevorrow, who directed Khan in Jurassic World (2015), has tweeted a tribute to a “thoughtful man who found beauty in the world around him, even in pain. In our last correspondence, he asked me to remember ‘the wonderful aspects of our existence’ in the darkest of days.”

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