Before his international success as an actor, Irrfan Khan was already a huge star in Hindi cinema. Beginning with his first starring role as an insomnia afflicted police officer in Rog, Khan quickly rose to stardom in Bollywood and a succession of hit films in his native India followed. It wouldn’t be long before the rest of the world would begin to learn his name.
Khan made a strong impression in Mira Nair’s The Namesake in 2006 as a father struggling to keep his first-generation immigrant family afloat in New York City. Both the film and his work were well-received by critics and filmgoers. Just one year later he gave what may be my favorite performance of his in Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart. The film tells the true story of the 2002 abduction and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, and the failed effort to save him. The cast is led by Angelina Jolie as Pearl’s wife, Marianne. She’s extraordinary, but it was Khan as the beleaguered Pakistani police chief who attempts to help Pearl while also navigating the local bureaucracy and the hyper-charged political environment who stayed with me longest. Khan’s remarkably expressive eyes seem to foreshadow the horror to come. I may have been watching A Mighty Heart for the first time, but Khan’s every glance speaks of a man who has seen this movie before, and he knows how it’s going to end–in tears.
2008 would bring the most widely seen and heavily awarded film of Khan’s career, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. In Slumdog, Khan plays a very different kind of policeman. This time he’s an inspector interrogating Dev Patel’s game-show contestant winner. Khan owns every scene he appears in. There’s a casual malevolence that seems to seep from his pores as he beats and tortures a young man suspected of cheating on India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. I’ve never been a huge fan of Slumdog, but there can be no doubt that the whole film elevates whenever Khan is onscreen. You simply couldn’t take your eyes off of him. I found myself all but looking to the corners of the screen awaiting his return whenever the film moved away from the interrogation scenes.
Khan remained a huge star in India for the remainder of his career, but except for an appealing small part in 2015’s Jurassic World, Khan made only one more sizable mark in English-language cinema with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi in 2012. Many thought that Pi was going to be a disaster. You simply couldn’t translate the material from book to screen. At least that’s what they said. How wrong “they” were. Pi is an incredibly tricky piece of work. The tale of a young boy named Pi adrift on the ocean in a small boat with a zebra, and orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger dubbed Richard Parker sounds ridiculous on the face of it. The much loved novel by Yann Martel was not only an adventure story, it questioned the very nature of what is real and what is not. While Pi is part fable and fantasy, it also miraculously finds a way to root itself in reality during its closing scenes, which are really something. Many years after Pi finds his way to land in Mexico, a young writer comes to meet with the adult Pi to write a story about his fantastical (and perhaps untrue) journey to survival. It’s a complex give and take between the writer and Pi that leads to an almost Sixth Sense level revelation. I can’t think of any way that sequence works without Irrfan Khan as Pi.
Once again, Khan’s eyes carry the day. Just as the writer does, we look into those eyes and conclude that it doesn’t really matter whether Pi is telling the truth or not. All that matters is what we choose to believe. Faced with the option of printing the legend or what is probably the truth, the writer selects the former. How could anyone look at Irrfan Khan and do anything else?
Irrfan Khan died today. He was 53 years old.