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A Goodbye to Bollywood’s Irrfan Khan: A Master Actor That Was Not a Showman

Irrfan Khan was extraordinary precisely because he managed to stay ordinary.

Krzysztof Iwanek
A Goodbye to Bollywood’s Irrfan Khan: A Master Actor That Was Not a Showman

In this January 22, 2018 file photo, actor Irrfan Khan poses for a portrait.

Credit: Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP, File

Some men are immortalized as statues or paintings. But this shapes their image into one concrete pose, leaving out various aspects of their life and petrifying one. Something similar may happen to actresses and actors during their career, when at certain point they start to play – or have to play – the same role in many movies. The second trap is that they may also lose a healthy distance between their private life, their appearance in public, and their acting on the screen, gradually becoming living statues of themselves. As the difference between real life and reel life becomes blurred, so does the fine line between acting and showing off.

This happens in Hollywood and European cinema, as well as in Kollywood, Tollywood, Bollywood, and other Indian film industries. Irrfan Khan, who passed away on April 29, at the age of 53, was one actor of the Hindi cinema scene who refused to be petrified into a statue, and who did not allow fame to capture his ego and lose touch with the ground.

Western audiences may know him from roles in such movies as Slumdog Millionaire (as the police officer), Life of Pi (the adult Pi), as well as Jurassic World, The Amazing Spider-Man, Inferno, and others. And this was how a part of the Western media labelled him at the very first news of his death. But, with hindsight, such films were mostly second fiddle to Khan’s achievements in Indian cinema. While a recognized and awarded star in India, the talented actor mostly played supporting roles in the West. One could easily write a whole text about Irrfan Khan’s silver screen career without ever referring to the roles he played in American and British films, the only important conclusion being that he was one of the few Bollywood actors that managed to break into Hollywood.

The first movie I saw him in was The Warrior, which screened in 2001, when I was a second-year student and was just beginning to study India. While The Warrior was formally not an Indian movie, Irrfan Khan, who played the lead role, was the first Indian actor I saw on the silver screen. Little did I realize at that time how different his style was from the usual Bollywood manners. It is only now, after his departure, that I see that perhaps that specific film speaks more about the particularities of Khan’s talent than all his Western roles bundled together. The Warrior’s striking feature was that it spoke through pictures, as hardly any words were uttered throughout the whole story. Now, taking a glance at the next 19 years of Khan’s career, I realize that the artistic concept behind The Warrior seemed to be tailor-made for his talent: in a movie without dialogue, he expressed himself solely through his acting. 

The common image of Bollywood – and largely the Indian cinematic industry – is that the movies are long, must include dance sequences and songs, and are often a mixture of drama, romance, comedy, and action. While it must be stressed time and again that there are many exceptions to this, there is no denying that this image is very often correct when it comes to many mainstream Bollywood films. 

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And yet, when it came to Irrfan Khan, he did not exhibit of the features that should define such a mainstream star. Dancing was not his specialty; he did not cause a heatwave in the hearts of women by flexing his muscles, nor did he show off many karate skills. Two among the best-known Hindi stars nowadays, Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan, specialize in action movies where they routinely beat up bad guys, Chuck Norris-style. Hrithik Roshan used to make hearts skip a beat with his dancing skills and perfect body.

Irrfan Khan, in turn, was not known for any of that. He will not be remembered as a heroic and muscular savior nor a Romeo. Most of his roles – and the films he chose to play in – defy the stereotypical image of a Bollywood movie. The cost of not going the path paved by others was huge, however, as it took more than a dozen years for his Indian career to achieve a breakthrough, and he once admitted he was fed up with it before it really took off.

Even more importantly, in a cinematic world dominated by larger-than-life heroes and overacting stars, Khan stood out for playing the everyman, without superhuman powers or extraordinary skills, somebody we could relate to. Even his on-screen hairstyle and makeup appeared as not overdone, without an attempt to make him look like a beauty pageant contestant. One of the films that gives a good feel of his subtle way of acting and an unimposing appearance was The Lunchbox, a calm story of loneliness and love. This does not mean that his acting was only reduced to such roles. His other works range from playing a sportsman-turned-soldier-turned-bandit in Paan Singh Tomar to acting in a comedy, Angrezi Medium, playing a father that badly wants to get his daughter admitted in an English-medium school.

Khan managed to retain the same distance toward himself while away from the silver screen. Once, when asked in an interview for Indian Express whether he had plans to write an autobiography, Irrfan Khan replied simply: “No. […] I don’t have anything interesting to say. My life is pretty boring and I don’t have a good story to publish.” Many other stars have “written” autobiographies even though their lives did not appear to be any more amusing than Khan’s. In an industry of extraordinariness, he was extraordinary precisely because he managed to stay ordinary.

This, I think, was Irrfan Khan’s most notable achievement: He became one of India’s silver screen stars and yet refused to be pigeonholed into mainstream Bollywood. Off the screen, he was an actor but not a showman; on screen, he was protagonist but not a hero. His career, while slow to start and once full of dejection, shows that despite dominant trends that often confirm its common image, Indian cinema does leave space for other stories, styles, and roles. It also proves that there were and are actors who could carve out their own path in this industry thanks to smart selection of roles, luck, and talent.