MUMBAI: Irrfan Khan, a veteran character actor in Bollywood movies and one of India’s most well-known exports to Hollywood, has died at the age of 54. He died on Wednesday (April 29) after he was admitted to Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani hospital with a colon infection, his spokesman said.
“Irrfan was a strong soul, someone who fought till the very end and always inspired everyone who came close to him,” a statement released by the actor’s team read.
Khan made his screen debut in the Academy Award-nominated 1988 drama Salaam Bombay!, a tale of Mumbai’s street children.
The acclaimed actor was also involved in blockbusters such as Slumdog Millionaire, which was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 2009. He portrayed park executive Masrani in Jurassic World and also appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man and the adventure fantasy Life Of Pi.
He worked with directors like Mira Nair, Wes Anderson and Ang Lee. The actor was diagnosed with a rare neuroendocrine cancer in 2018 and underwent months of treatment in the UK.”I trust, I have surrendered,” Khan wrote in a heartfelt note after he broke the news of his battle with cancer.
Khan won a number of domestic film awards in India, including a 2012 Indian National Film Award for best actor for his performance in Paan Singh Tomar, a compelling tale of a seven-time national champion athlete who quit India’s armed forces to rule the Chambal ravines in central India.
Khan received an Independent Spirit Award for supporting actor in 2006 Indian-American drama The Namesake, and a viewers’ choice award at Cannes in 2013 for his role in Indian romantic drama The Lunchbox.
Tributes came from Bollywood, including from Amitabh Bachchan, who said Khan was an “incredible talent” and “a prolific contributor” to cinema. Khan “left us too soon”, Bachchan wrote on Twitter.
In an interview with the Associated Press in 2018, Khan said: “I’ve seen life from a completely different angle. You sit down and you see the other side and that’s fascinating. I’m engaged on a journey.”
Khan’s last Bollywood movie, Angrezi Medium, a sequel to one of his biggest hits, Hindi Medium (2017), was released before India went into lockdown in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. He is survived by his wife, television writer and producer Sutapa Sikdar, and sons Babil and Ayan.
He was born Sahabzada Irfan Ali Khan on 7 January, 1967 in the Rajasthan village of Tonk. His mother’s family had a royal lineage and his father was a wealthy, self-made businessman who owned a tyre business.
Khan dropped the “Sahabzada” from his name as it pointed to his family’s privileged past – he felt this would get in the way. He also changed his name from “Irfan” to “Irrfan” – not for any noble motive – but simply because he preferred the way it sounds.
When his father died, he side-stepped expectations he would go into the tyre business. He was determined to become an actor, although it was not a future his family and friends could easily foresee. No-one could have imagined I would be an actor, I was so shy. So thin. But the desire was so intense.”
In 1984, he applied for a scholarship to the National School of Drama in Delhi. He lied about his previous experience in the theatre and got in. “I thought I would suffocate if I didn’t get admission,” he told one interviewer.
It was at drama school that he also met his future wife – the writer SutapaSikdar. “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,” she recalled.