Irrfan Khan’s exposure to international projects and arthouse cinema began rather early, with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay in 1988. The actor played a small role in the film that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Little did the world know that he would one day be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart (2007) and Tom Hanks in Inferno (2016).
After Salaam Bombay, Irrfan starred in the Indo-German short film The Cloud Door (1994), directed by Mani Kaul. While playing character roles in Bollywood, Irrfan continued to take part in parallel international productions. He played a warrior in feudal Rajasthan in the 2001 BAFTA winning film The Warrior by British filmmaker Asif Kapadia. He joined Tannishtha Mukherjee, Prashant Narayan and Tillotama Shome in the Bengali language German film Shadows of Time (2004).
Irrfan tapped into his Bengali speaking skills once again in The Namesake (2006), collaborating again with Mira Nair for a film based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. The film was produced by Indian, American and Japanese studios, screened at several film festivals around the world and won critical praise everywhere.
A Mighty Heart in 2007 directed by Michael Winterbottom was a bigger leap internationally for Irrfan, working in a film headlined by Dan Futterman and Angelina Jolie on a subject as moving as the kidnap of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. It was screened out of competition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 was a melting pot of talents from India and abroad. Irrfan found space among the long list of cast members in this British production which put India on the world cinema map once again, alongwith a sweeping win at the 2009 Academy Awards.
The actor moved towards a bigger role in the 2012 Ang Lee film Life of Pi, playing the older Pi Patel in this adventure drama. The movie was a huge success both critically and commercially. At the 85th Academy Awards it had eleven nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and won four.
The same year, he starred in the superhero film The Amazing Spider-Man with Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans and others. Irrfan had said he was offered this “pivotal role” after appearing in the TV drama series In Treatment.
Director Marc Webb described himself as a fan of the actor when watching the series along with the films The Namesake and The Warrior. Irrfan said he was uninterested in the project at first, but that his sons were excited about it and insisted he take the role.
Now that he had ventured into more mainstream Hollywood, more such offers kept coming in. He joined Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in the 2015 sci-fi film Jurassic World, playing Simon Masrani, CEO of the Masrani Corporation and the owner of Jurassic World. The commercial success of the film ensured more visibility in Hollywood for the actor.
His casting in 2016’s Inferno with Tom Hanks met with a collective hurrah from his fans in India, who were excited to see him share screen space with a top Hollywood actor. Irrfan starred as Harry “The Provost” Sims, head of The Consortium, helping Zobrist in his mission in this adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel. While promoting the film, Hanks said of his Indian co-star, “Here’s what I hate about Irrfan Khan… I always think I’m the coolest guy in the room, and everybody’s hanging on to every word I say and everybody’s a little intimidated to be in my presence. And then Irrfan Khan walks into the room. And he’s the coolest guy in the room. And everybody’s intimidated to be in his presence and everybody’s hanging on to his every word.”
His latest Hollywood project was Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle, co-starring Kelly Macdonald, which premiered at Sundance in 2018. Puzzle is an American drama film based on the 2010 Argentine film of the same name. Irrfan starred as the puzzle partner of Kelly, who played a stay-at-home mother who enters a puzzle building competition.
With his passing, India lost a powerhouse actor who made a space for himself in international cinema by sheer force of talent. His achievements abroad resonated with multitudes with cinema lovers in India who will remember him as the man who transcended the labels of mainstream, arthouse, independent, Indian and western cinema.
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