Irrfan Khan’s steady ascent to the top of the success ladder is what legendary tales are made of. The Padma Shri and National Award winner has a portfolio that boasts of winners like The Namesake and Haider, and collaborations with several acclaimed filmmakers, such as Ang Lee, Danny Boyle and Wes Anderson to his credit. With an already enviable resumé, the actor has had a particularly busy 2017, swinging from dramedies such as Hindi Medium and Qarib Qarib Singlle, to more sombre collaborations such as The Song of Scorpions and Doob: No Bed of Roses. In the process, Irrfan has yet again proved that not only is he at the top of his game, he is also one of the most bankable actors in the entertainment industry today.
Born to aristocratic parents in Jaipur, Irrfan was not interested in joining the family business specialising in tyres. In 1984, he joined the illustrious National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi to pursue acting. But learning the craft was generously complemented with two life-altering incidents: meeting his future wife, writer Sutapa Sikdar, and working with Mira Nair in the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay! Although his part in the final cut of the film was left on the floor of the editing room, it sowed the seeds for an alliance that would come to fruition years later in the form of The Namesake.
Bidding adieu to NSD, the next chapter of his life had him entering the realm of television with Shrikant. Whilst appearing in several feature films (Tapan Sinha’s National Award Winner Ek Doctor ki Maut) and short films (Mani Kaul’s The Cloud Door), Irrfan found steady work with Zee TV’s Banegi Apni Baat, which ran from 1994 to 1998. However, dissatisfied with not being able to fully realise his potential, he considered quitting acting altogether. That was until 2001, when the lead role in Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior came his way, which went on to win the BAFTA for the Best British Film. The same year, he also starred in Ashvin Kumar’s short film, Road to Ladakh, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, giving him a taste of the international fame that was to come his way in a few years.
There is a polarised perception in India regarding commercial and art-house cinema. In 2003, Haasil and Maqbool became the long-awaited springboard which helped him prove that he could balance mainstream Bollywood with the same finesse that made him an indie darling. The year 2007 saw him sharing screen space with Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart as a Pakistani police officer. Additionally, a departure from his usually gritty films, Anurag Basu’s Life in a… Metro gave him the opportunity to display his deadpan humour – a style of comedy favoured by the Oscar nominated Wes Anderson, who especially wrote a part for Irrfan in The Darjeeling Limited to facilitate them working together.
The next couple of years remained largely dominated by box-office misses, with the exception of Slumdog Millionaire (2008). His involvement with this Oscar winning film paved the way for a major role in HBO’s In Treatment. Brought on board for its third season by executive producer Dan Futterman, also his co-star in A Mighty Heart, Irrfan earned critical appreciation for his portrayal of Sunil, a grieving Bengali widower in Brooklyn. Bigger Hollywood ventures followed, including The Amazing Spider-Man and Life of Pi in 2012, the year he also won the National Award for Best Actor for his titular role as athlete-turned-bandit in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar.
His co-stars and directors have been consistently generous with praise and hailing him as “brilliantly unpredictable”. In an interview with The New York Times in 2012, Futterman said, “He has that ineffable thing that certain great actors have of doing very little but drawing the audience in.” He had the audience eating out of his hand in the Cannes-certified, Grand Rail d’Or winner, The Lunchbox. As Saajan Fernandez, Irrfan presented us with a romantic hero whose unconventionality, tenderness, and yearning can only be compared to Akshaye Khanna’s in Dil Chahta Hai.
He collaborated with the comedy collective, All India Bakchod, in 2015 on a video that spoofed party songs in Bollywood films. In Piku, he added a layer of subtle, understated romance, a format rarely explored in Bollywood. AIB roped him in once again in early 2017 to recreate the most hilarious and viral memes in a video. To no one’s surprise, it went viral and gave his fans the idea that, for an actor who has made his mark with often intense movies, he does not take himself as seriously as they might think.
For someone who could not afford a ticket to watch the original Jurassic Park, Irrfan has had a meteoric rise which has seen him become a part of the franchise with Jurassic World. With three films in the pipeline, including a Hollywood production, Puzzle, this maverick has no plans to slow down anytime soon. For him, the sky’s the limit.
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