To be able to say so much without saying a word—a look into the middle distance, a sigh, a slight lean forward while hunching one’s shoulders, or just a casual wave of the hand—it was an art in which Irrfan Khan excelled. When he did speak, the unusual timbre of his voice, which you could describe as either honeyed or raspy, his craggy face breaking into a slow and easy smile: He could take your breath away.
He did all this and more while playing everyday characters in Bollywood and Indian art house cinema, whether it was soft-spoken Bengali academic Ashoke Ganguli in Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006), lonely widower Saajan Fernandes in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013), straight-shooting taxi-company owner Rana Chaudhary in Piku (2015) or upstart boutique owner Raj Batra in Hindi Medium (2017). There were also smaller parts in British and Hollywood movies: a police officer in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), a ruthless corporate executive in The Amazing Spider-Man and the adult, titular character in Life of Pi (both released in 2012), as well as an immigrant father-in-law in the third season of the HBO series In Treatment (2010)— all roles Khan simply dissolved into.
Irrfan Khan died on April 29, 2020 in Mumbai. The news wasn’t particularly shocking to those who knew of Khan’s ill health. In March 2018, he disclosed his diagnosis with a rare neuroendocrine tumor. While seeking treatment in London, he occasionally mused about his treatment in tweets and letters that revealed a philosophical side laced with acerbic humor.
Clearly, Khan in his many avatars touched the lives of many people in a deep and meaningful way. How else can I explain my Facebook feed that quickly filled with tributes to him, when news of his death started spreading on social media? Many of the eulogies had been written by people who don’t necessarily see themselves as film fans. It’s a testament to his capabilities as an actor that many people are feeling his passing as a personal loss.
My earliest memory of seeing Khan act was in a dreadful Indian TV series called Chandrakanta (1994). He played the role of a spy in the fantasy show about two lovers from rival kingdoms who are kept apart by scheming courtiers and magical spells. Khan’s twin characters Badrinath and Somnath were outlandish, his brows disappearing into his heavily kohled eyes, a bad wig and garish red costume completing the bizarre look.
As a child, I had also seen him previously in the roles he played in a dramatized historical series called Bharat Ek Khoj (1988), which was based on the book Discovery of India by India’s first prime minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru. I wasn’t until I was much older that I realized the parts he played.
I’m sure I caught him in Hindi films here and there, but it wasn’t until Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool (2003) came to Toronto as part of the Toronto International Film Festival that I really got to both dwell on Khan as an actor, and to interview him. As an English literature student at the time, I was taken by Bharadwaj’s adaptation of Macbeth into Mumbai’s mafia world. It featured a stellar cast of Hindi cinema heavyweights, but it was Khan as Maqbool and Tabu as Nimmi who stole the show. Their chemistry was mesmerizing, and Khan was a revelation. (It’s a little hard to recall our conversation, but I do remember coming away from the interview marvelling at Khan’s nonchalant attitude.)
Then came The Namesake, in which Khan was paired up yet again with Tabu, but this time playing Bengali immigrants in Brooklyn. I will admit to preferring the film over the book—a rarity for me—because of Nair’s evocative translation of Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s word to visuals, and the quiet dignity that Khan lends to an academic who struggles with the joys and challenges of building a new life as an immigrant, husband and father. I still remember the endearing exchange between Ashoke (Khan) and Ashima (Tabu), mostly made up of gestures, when Ashima makes a mistake while washing their clothes at a laundromat.
Then it seemed the whole world discovered Khan in The Lunchbox. He had, of course, already appeared in movies such as Slumdog Millionaire and A Mighty Heart, not to mention many Hindi films in supporting roles. (In fact, his real international debut happened in 2001 with British filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior, which revived Khan’s interest in films after a long period of playing smaller roles. He played the leading role of a warrior in feudal Rajasthan, the Indian state Khan was born in, who renounces violence only to be chased by it.)
The gentleness with which he played the starring role of lonely widower Saajan Fernandes in The Lunchbox stole many hearts apparently. About to retire from his desk job, and required to train his own replacement Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a delightfully chatterbox turn), Saajan’s humdrum life is turned around when he accidentally receives a lunchbox meant for someone else. The mistake leads to a wistful romance of letters between Saajan and the unhappy wife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) who was trying to light the spark of her waning marriage.
Among his recent films, Khan’s work in Hindi cinema in Piku, Talvar and Hindi Medium stand out. The roles are varied—there’s the forthright cab owner who gets caught in the crosshairs of a cantankerous father and irate daughter’s relationship; there’s an Indian intelligence officer thwarted by his peers and superiors while covering a police case that causes a media sensation; there’s the nouveau-riche owner of a boutique clothing store who pretends to be poor to get his daughter in an elite English-language school.
The last feature I saw him in was an indie Hindi film called Karwaan (2018), in which Khan played Shaukat, an owner of a garage who accompanies his friend Avinash (Dulquer Salmaan, a Malayalam film superstar in his debut Hindi role) on a road trip when Avinash’s father dies in a road accident. True to form, Khan delivers a delightful performance as a wise-cracking friend, doling out equal amounts of empathy and straight-shooting advice in deadpan deliveries.
There was a fair amount of improvisation on set, Karwaan’s director Akarsh Khurana told me in an interview, especially since Khurana comes from a theatre background, and Khan had studied at one of India’s most prestigious theatre schools, National School of Drama. Khan has a natural sense of humor, Khurana said. (His ability to laugh at himself can be seen in this parody video starring Khan, poking fun at the requisite party song in Bollywood movies.) Khurana also highlighted a scene towards the end of the film in which Shaukat is listening to the eulogy for Avinash’s father, sitting apart from the gathering. Turns out that scene was captured separately, with Khan emoting in a full shot.
“I remember an assistant sat down in front of him on the floor, and was just reciting the lines, without any feeling or emotion,” Khurana told me. “The whole reaction was Khan on his own, without seeing anything. He delivered all those emotions in a single shot. At the end, he told me, ‘Take a look, use whatever you can.’ And he was so good that we couldn’t cut anything.”
I met Khan once more at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, when he came as part of the Talvar team. I still remember him sitting still in the middle of the media circus around him. A small lounge located a short walk away from TIFF Bell Lightbox had been rented, and a string of reporters were coming in and out of interviews, handlers hovering around.
Dressed in a beige floral jacket, black shirt, jeans and a scarf slung across his neck, Khan observed the goings-on with amused eyes. When he was rolling up a cigarette, one of his handlers, a shaggy haired kid who didn’t appear to know who Khan was, came and started idly chatting with him. Khan kept on rolling his cigarette, his eyes on his hands, nodding along as the young man prattled on. When the young man asked Khan if he could have a cigarette, Khan simply turned to him, looked at him for a moment, smiled and handed it over.
It could have been a scene from one of his films.
Talvar was inspired by a real life case of the 2008 New Delhi murders of Aarushi Talwar, a teen girl who was found dead in her bedroom, and her family’s domestic help Hemraj Banjade, whose body was found on the terrace the next day. The case made media headlines for days, and was marred by a botched investigation.
Since the case had made such a splash in the news, Khan had tuned out of its coverage, he told me at the time. He was intrigued by the role because he was surprised to learn details about the case that didn’t become public knowledge until much later. In a way, the film underscored many issues of contemporary Indian society, such as class privilege and the experience of a people caught between conservative attitudes and modern aspirations.
The film was also a commentary of the state of Indian media, said Khan.
“The media in India is very powerful,” he said. “It can create a perception of democracy. The media is important, no doubt. It’s supposed to raise questions. But in this case, the media misused its power.”
The interview eventually became a conversation. Khan, as is his habit with interviewers, started asking questions about stories I was working on.
“We need more writers in Bombay,” he said, eventually turning to me, his eyes fixed. “You should come. We’ll talk then.”
With that our time was up.