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Irrfan Khan: The Biography of a Rare Talent

A method actor per excellence, Irrfan Khan was a name synonymous with the craft of acting. He was and still continues to be, even after his untimely demise, one of the most celebrated and coveted actors in Bollywood of his time. Having acted in films both in Bollywood and Hollywood, his natural style had caught many eyes. With prestigious and highly acclaimed performances to his name, Irrfan Khan was truly one who was committed to his work and always strove to provide nothing but the best for his audience. 


In honor of his memory, let us get a quick flashback into his biography. 


Birth and early childhood


It is sufficient to say that Irrfan Khan hailed from very humble beginnings. It was in 1966 that Saahabzaade Irfan Ali Khan (his full name) was born to parents Yaseen Ali Khan and Saada Begum Khan. His father was the owner of the tyre business, and they were linked to the Pathan ancestry. His mother had ties with the Royal Family of Jodhpur in Tonks, and that is where he was brought up. 


Irrfan is known to have been quite good at cricket. However, if he was to make a career out of it, he would have had to attend coaching classes, which were quite far away from where he lived, and he did not have enough money to afford his travel expenses. Thus, he sacrificed his love and zeal for the sport and continued with his passion for acting. 

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From a very young age, Irrfan had shown interest in acting, which was largely under the influence of his maternal uncle. He used to attend theatre group sessions and take part in various local plays, which helped him no doubt to hone his skills from a very young age. He was familiar with stage performances from a very young age. He developed quite a passion for this art, and hence after he completed his masters from Jodhpur, he headed out to Delhi to study in the National School of Drama. Getting through to the NSD was no mean feat, and it was something that a boy from Jodhpur managed and that too with a scholarship. In fact, it was here that he met his life partner, SutapaSikdar. This was in 1984. 


After completing his training from NSD, Irrfan headed off to the city of dreams, where everyone goes to make a name for themselves and strive for good work in the field of acting – Mumbai. His days in the city were one of extreme struggle. Initially, to sustain himself, Irrfan worked as an AC repairer. The only good part of his job? Well, it landed him inside the house of his superstar, Rajesh Khanna, a yesteryear actor, whose name and fame combined together formed the first real superstar of the film industry. 


He always harbored a deep love for the craft and never believed in settling for anything but the best; however, his struggle was a real one till he finally managed to breakthrough. 


Irrfan’s tryst with Bollywood


Like, every other aspiring actor, Irrfan was always on the lookout for a breakthrough in Bollywood and the Hindi television industry. In fact, he did bag himself a minor role in Saalam Bombay by Mira Nair, a critically acclaimed director, but as luck would have it, his role was chopped off in the editor’s table! As he fished around for roles while trying to make ends meet, he landed various portrayals of antagonistic characters in television series, which did bring him into the limelight of critics. Along with television serials, he continued to look for roles in Bollywood films, and one such film was Kamla Ki Maut by Basu Chatterjee, another critically acclaimed director of his times. This film, which released in 1989, had Irrfan starring opposite Rupa Ganguly, another famous actress and known face in the television industry from Bengal. Needless to say, his performance did gather the appreciation of many critics. 


As the 1990s began, it was not that Irrfan did not have films in his bag, but his performances did not catch the public eye. He kept on slogging and never gave up the hope that his breakthrough moment would come. And it finally did in 2001 with the film The Warrior. Shot in Himachal Pradesh in just 11 weeks, this film by Asif Kapadia, which went on to open at various film festivals across the globe, earned him much critical appreciation, and Irrfan Khan slowly began to earn a name for himself in the industry. Like many Bollywood actors, he ventured into the South Indian film industry as well and earned a name for himself there too. 


One of his most celebrated and commercially popular films came in between the time period of 2003-2004 when he appeared in Vishal Bhardwaj’s film, Maqbool, which did make him a household name. After this, there was no looking back for this actor as he continued to breathe new life into the roles that he was offered. 


In 2007, he was cast in two films – The Namesake, an adaption of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of the same name, and Life in a…Metro. Before this, he had acted in the Bollywood film Rog which too had garnered some praise. It was his role of two diametrically opposite characters in The Namesake and Life in a…Metro worked wonders for him and established his versatility as an actor. While in one, he played the role of a father and a husband, in the other a happy go lucky person in search of love, with comic relief to his character. It goes without saying that his role was one of the key highlights of the multi-starrer film Life in a…Metro. He was cast opposite another powerful actress of his times, Konkona Sen Sharma, and both of them earned much praise for their portrayal. 


Since the till his death, Irrfan has acted in many films, some of the noted of which are Paan Singh Tomar, Piku, Hindi Medium, and many more. Apart from making a name for himself in the Bollywood film industry, he carved out a place for him in Hollywood as well with his roles in Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi. 


Awards and Accolades


Irrfan bagged the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award for Life in a…Metro. Paan Singh Tomar, one of his most critically acclaimed film, earned him the national award for best actor, a much-coveted award. He won the Filmfare Best Actor Award for his role in Hindi Medium. It was in 2011 that Irrfan was awarded the Padma Shri, one of the highest awards for achievement in arts. 

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Irrfan’sMethod of Acting


As most of his directors have pointed out time and again, he was completely dedicated to his craft. In fact, one of his directors went on record after his death to say that it was not the stardom that he wanted but the complete immersion into his art. So committed was he to his craft that he dropped his surname Khan and stuck only to Irrfan (the extra r was added by him to his name) since he wanted to be known and identified only by his performance and not by his religion or lineage. 


The style of acting that he adopted is popularly known as method acting. It is a form of acting that involves the actor completely immersing himself into the character that he is portraying. This style was popularized by other stalwarts like Dustin Hoffman and Marlon Brando. It required dedication and thorough research and, most of all, a deep understanding of the character, all of which Irrfan excelled at. 


Irrfan’s family


It was in 1995 that Irrfan tied the knot with his sweetheart from NSD, SutapaSikdar, and had two sons. After his death, his wife said that she has only gained from this presence, and he had taught her to settle for nothing but the best. 


Irrfan’s death


The news of Irrfan’s death came amidst the coronavirus outbreak. He had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in the colon back in 2018 and had taken a sabbatical from films for his treatment abroad. He came back sometime later, much better, and resumed working in films. His commercially noted last film was Angrezi Medium. However, the deadly disease took its toll, and the actor breathed his last on the 29th of April, only a few days after his mother’s death. It came much as a shock to the film fraternity as to his fans. Tweets and condolences poured out from different corners of the industry, and people expressed deep grief over the loss of an actor who had so much more to give. 


Irrfan breathed his last aged 53, a tender age, but he left behind a heritage and a legacy of his own. He will, in times to come, be remembered as one of the method actors of Bollywood who found fame both in the industry and abroad. 


Critically acclaimed and commercially successful, Irrfan was a rare combination of talent and popularity. 

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