Irrfan Khan: India’s super export to Hollywood

Irrfan Khan
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New Delhi–Irrfan Khan was one of the few Indian stars to seamlessly transition from Bollywood to Hollywood, while breaking the stereotypical barriers reserved for brown people in the West with his unconventional acting skills.

From pivotal roles in big budget tentpoles like “Jurassic World”, “Inferno” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” to critically acclaimed and successful crossover dramas such as “The Namesake”, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Life of Pi”, Irrfan was India’s first and biggest export to Hollywood. And he did all this without making any clamour about invading the West, and instead let his work do the talking.

He was the actor who matched the Oscar-winning Tom Hanks’ on-screen thunder. He was the star who turned down offers to work with Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott without breaking a sweat. He was the actor who retained his identity as an Indian while escaping the stereotypical traps, sometimes as a police inspector in “Slumdog Millionaire”, sometimes as a doctor in “The Amazing Spider-Man”, sometimes as a powerful businessmen in “Jurassic World” and sometimes as the head of an enigmatic international organisation known as ‘The Consortium’ in “Inferno”.

While promoting “Inferno”, actor Tom Hanks said he wants to be cool like Irrfan.

“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,” Tom Hanks said about working with Irrfan.

After carving a name for himself in Hindi cinema, he has gradually established himself in the West too. But there was a time in the 1990s when Irrfan was contemplating leaving the glitzy world of showbiz.

British filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s “The Warrior” in 2001 gave a much-needed fillip to his career and an exposure to the West that opened new vistas. From there on, there was no looking back.

In an interview with IANS in the past, Irrfan had shared how his move to tread the Hollywood path was initially met with criticism.

“When I entered Hollywood, most of my colleagues and industry people used to say that ‘Hollywood mein kya hai’, ‘Taxi driver aur waiter ke role hi hote hain’. But fortunately things have changed. Now, nationality is not important,” he said, going on to use his character in “Inferno” to further elaborate his point. For me in ‘Inferno’, nationality doesn’t matter, or like in ‘Jurassic World’, where I played the role of Simon Masrani — he could have been an Indian Sindhi or an Italian. So that is how things are changing. Your nationality doesn’t really become a limitation,” the National Award-winning star had said.

He also starred in the 2017 film “The Song Of Scorpions”, and 2007 movie “A Mighty Heart”, which also featured Angelina Jolie, besides the Indo-German short film “The Cloud Door” (1994).

After working on the small screen, Irrfan made his film debut with a cameo in 1988 through Mira Nair’s Oscar-nominated “Salaam Bombay”. The actor passed away in Mumbai on Wednesday. He was 53.

The actor, diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumour in 2018, was still recovering from the disease after extensive treatment in London.

The actor was taking baby steps back into the acting world. He recovered well enough to complete the shoot of “Angrezi Medium”, which was incidentally the last film to hit the screens in India before the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

Here’s a look at some of his iconic work in the West

* The Warrior (2001)

Directed by British filmmaker Asif Kapadia, the movie featured Irrfan as a warrior in feudal Rajasthan and chronicles his journey to give up the sword. The 2001 film won a BAFTA that year.

* A Mighty Heart (2007)

In Michael Winterbottom’s “A Mighty Heart”, which narrates true story of the kidnap and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Irrfan got on board for the role of a Pakistani intelligence officer known only as Captain, and impressed all with his skills.

* Inferno (2016)

In the thriller film, directed by Ron Howard, Irrfan is seen as Harry “The Provost” Sims, head of The Consortium, who is helping Zobrist in his mission to reduce the Earth’s growing population. It also features Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Ben Foster and Sidse Babett Knudsen.

* The Namesake (2006)

He collaborated with Mira Nair for the film based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. The film narrates the struggles of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli (Irrfan and Tabu) as first-generation immigrants from trying to find a place in the US while raising their children.

* Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Danny Boyle’s Oscar winning film was a game changer for Irrfan, and propelled him into the big league. In the film, he featured as a police inspector who gets caught up in the main storyline — about Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) who becomes a TV sensation after winning the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”.

* Life Of Pi (2012)

The Ang Lee film is about an Indian man named “Pi” Patel, who is narrating his life story to a novelist. It’s about how at 16 he survives a shipwreck and is adrift in the ocean on a lifeboat with a tiger. He essayed the older Pi Patel in the adventure drama. The movie was a huge success both critically and commercially.

* The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

In the superhero film by Marc Webb, he was seen as a super scientist named Rajit Ratha. He featured alongside Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, and Rhys Ifans and others.

* Jurassic World (2015)

Irrfan joined Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in the sci-fi film to essay the role of Simon Masrani, CEO of the Masrani Corporation and the owner of Jurassic World. It was a commercially successful project, and ensured more visibility for the actor in Hollywood.

* Puzzle (2018)

The drama film directed by Marc Turtletaub follows the life of a stay-at-home mother Agnes who enters a puzzle building competition. Irrfan starred as the puzzle partner of Kelly Macdonald’s character Agnes.


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