This week on Flashback, we take a look at the life of an actor who straddles the Indian film industry and Hollywood with ease and has transcended geographical barriers. It’s no other than Irrfan Khan. A versatile actor who is an acting institute in himself and whose acting capabilities cannot be compared to other actors! His presence has also more often than not proven to become a reliable indicator of the quality of a movie. Irrfan Khan is an international star who straddles multiples worlds—Bollywood, Hollywood, mainstream, indie with an ease. Born in Tonk Jaipur, he was studying for his MA degree when he earned a scholarship to study at National School of Drama in 1984. In his final year, a young director casting her first feature — a cinema verité take on slum life in Bombay — came to the school scouting for talent and Mira Nair signed him as a letter writer in Salaam Bombay, a role that he rehearsed for but did not act in.
After graduating in 1987, Irrfan moved to Mumbai. Television serials were the best refuge for serious actors at the time and Irrfan appeared in a good number, including Banegi Apni Baat and Chandrakanta. While he was busy in television, he kept getting some small roles in Hindi films. But the film industry caught up with him in 2001 when he was offered a part in The Warrior – a period film by a British-Indian director Asif Kapadia and after many unsuccessful attempts, things finally changed for him. Released in 2001, The Warrior was applauded at international film festivals and the young, rakish Irrfan with smoky topaz eyes and a tight lean frame became a known face on the global arena.
Other roles followed but India was yet to discover him…. Around this time, he agreed to work with first time director Tigmanshu Dhulia and then came Ranvijay Singh, the menacing student leader, ‘Haasil’ on the criminalisation of student politics which won him his Filmfare award for Best Villain in 2003. His unconventional and powerful performance was mesmerising and he made us sit up and wonder what he’ll do next?
Also, by now the Indian film industry radically changed. Studios, in Bollywood as in Hollywood, discovered alternatives to the high-risk, high-reward blockbuster. India’s new malls featured smaller, luxurious multiplexes to appeal to the urban middle classes and so studios could make healthy profits with smaller budgets, giving directors the freedom to do more inventive stories. Irfan Khan starred in one of the early “multiplex movies” — Maqbool, a 2003 retelling of Macbeth.
Maqbool (2003) made Irrfan Khan the inspiration for all those talented actors who didn’t dance and weren’t the leading men in the film. His understated controlled acting and dialogue delivery with a very definite presence began getting noticed and he started getting roles in multi starrer Hindi films. Irrfan is the first Bollywood actor to star in two films that won the Academy Award for Best Director (Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Life of Pi (2012)). In the West, he has many films like The Namesake (2006), New York, I Love You (2008), A Mighty Heart (2007), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Life of Pi (2012), and Jurassic World (2015), the HBO series In Treatment (2008), Inferno (2016).