My hearty tribute to Irrfan Khan – The most versatile actor of present-generation Indian cinema

Versatile, wonderful, unconventional and natural actor with extra ordinary screen presence, Irrfan Khan (1967 – 2020) was definitely one of the top talented actors Indian cinema has ever had. He belongs to one of those rare breed of actors who reached super stardom and achieved celebrity status, not for his looks, but purely based on talent. His journey from the days of battles to superstardom was so long, and it took nearly 3 decades. Yet he achieved a feat among Indian actors, which none of his contemporaries could even dream off. No doubt, he was the most versatile lead actor of Hindi cinema present times.

He owns numerous memorable roles to his credit, both in Bollywood and international career, especially Hollywood and British cinema. He won the prestigious National award for best actor for his heart touching performance in the biopic Pan Singh Tomar (2011) in 2012, and Filmfare Award for Best Actor for Hindi Medium in 2018, after which he reported his ill health. He was also awarded Padma Shri in 2011. Also read: Top actors and actresses who died comparatively at a young age. In the list, sadly Irrfan is the only lead actor to represent present generation. Have a look and come back.

Pan Singh Tomar was the landmark movie of his career, and Hindi Medium was his biggest commercial hit, after which he achieved the unique feat of being an unconventional actor as well as commercial hero. After fighting with cancer for nearly three years, he passed away on 29th April 2020 during lockdown. He was diagnosed with colon infection. He was just 53 when he passed away at the peak of his career, shocking his fans and movie world. Haasil (2003), Maqbool (2004), Life in a… Metro (2007), The Lunchbox (2013), Piku (2015), Talvar (2015), Madaari (2016), Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017) and Blackmail (2018) are some other major works of his career, in lead and supporting roles.

Irrfan Khan was born into a wealthy business family in Jaipur

He was born on 7 January 1967 in Jaipur, Rajasthan into a rich business family. His mother’s family had a royal lineage. A self-made businessman his father was a successful tyre seller. After the death of his father, everyone wanted him to take the family business. But he was determined to become an actor and he convinced his mother. He was a shy boy and very thin, and nobody even imagined he would become an actor.

In 1984, he applied for a scholarship to the National School of Drama in Delhi. After completing his course, he joined theatre. He got his first break to films through Meera Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988), where he played a brief role of a letter writer. His roles in Kamla Ki Maut, Jazeere, Drishti, Ek Doctor Ki Maut etc went unnoticed. All of them were offbeat movies.  He played a meaty role of Rahul, a singer who has an extra-marital affair with a married woman, the role played by Dimple Kapadia. This offbeat movie won National Film Award for best Hindi film in 1990. Failing to get a break in films, he moved to small screen, playing brief roles. Yet it took a long time for this talented actor to establish a career in acting.

He became a part of several iconic Doordarshan serials of late 1980s and 1990s

Irrfan had an amazing screen chemistry with Rajendra Gupta in the fantasy series, Chandrakanta. However they had a good age gap of 32 years!

Before he got his break to big screen, he had already marked his small screen debut. Shrikant aired on Doordarshan during 1985-1986 marked his acting debut in a supporting role. It was followed by two episodes of Bharat Ek Khoj in 1988, Kahkashan in 1991 and Chanakya in 1992.

As an actor he was first noticed through his supporting role of “Senapati” Bhadrashal in Chanakya. However he turned a popular actor after he played the prominent double roles of the siblings – Badrinath and Somnath in the fantasy series, Chandrakanta. Since then people started recognizing him, and he played numerous character roles on TV screen. Yet he failed to get good offers from movies, and most of his film roles went unnoticed.

In a lead role, Banegi Apni Baat is his most prominent role on television. Laal Ghaas Par Neele Ghode, Darr, Star Bestsellers, Sparsh, Bhanvar, Jai Hanuman, Kahkashan etc are a few more noted appearances. During his struggling days, he had to take several less-significant TV roles.

He broke decades old traditions of Bollywood heroes through his unconventional appearance

One of his path breaking roles in Piku, directed by Shoojit Sircar

He lacked the looks for a traditional Bollywood romantic lead hero. He started his career in supporting roles. Breaking traditions, slowly he moved to the league of A-grade artists, registering box office hits one after another. People watched his films because of his talents and screen presence, and they overlooked his physical appearance. He appeared in around 80 movies. His eyes and its expressions were entirely different from a typical Bollywood hero, but spoke volumes of his work through natural expressions straight from heart.

Three decades of career in Indian cinema

He started his film journey playing brief roles, moved to supporting roles and came to prominence through negative shade roles. Through his immense talent and natural acting skills, he moved to lead actor roles over the years, which earned him a huge fan following crowd. Interestingly he excelled in lead roles, character roles, villain roles as well as comedy roles, earning the designation of versatile actor. A lovely person with a good heart, he stayed away from controversies in his three-decade long film journey too.

He came to prominence as a villain in Hindi cinema before moving to character roles

The Warrior – The first prominent acting role of Irrfan Khan on big screen

As an actor the lead role in The Warrior, a historical film gave him the first major break as a film actor. The movie was showcased at various international film festivals and Irrfan became a familiar face in international film circuit. Since then Bollywood filmmakers started approaching him for performance oriented roles, and he completed switched from small screen to big screen when he turned busy. He played a Public Prosecutor in 2001 hit thriller, Kasoor.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003) was his first major break in Hindi cinema, which won him Best Performance in a Negative Role at Screen awards. Same year his performance in Haasil earned him first ever Filmfare award. He won in the best villain category. Both these films earned him multiple nominations at different award functions in ‘Negative role’ category. Life in a… Metro (2007) was his next popular film in Bollywood cinema, and this positive role bagged him best supporting actor role at Filmfare awards and IIFA. It took nearly two decades of struggle to achieve success in the industry, and there was no turning back after that.

He was seen in supporting roles in The Killer, Chehraa, Dhund: The Fog, Gunaah, Charas: A Joint Operation, Chocolate, Aan: Men at Work, Footpath etc. But most of these commercial films met with commercial failure. He was one among those rare actors who accepted both lead and supporting roles, and earned success in both. He never hesitated to accept a brief role or guest role, even if it is brief. He accepted brief roles in Vishal Bhardwaj’s 7 Khoon Maaf and Haider, and left an impressive mark. He played noted supporting roles in New York, Krazzy 4, Sunday, Mumbai Meri Jaan, Knock Out, Yeh Saali Zindagi, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns, Thank You etc.

Billu – One of the early commercial films where he played a male lead

He shared screen space with Shah Rukh Khan in ‘Billu’, who co-produced the movie too

His lead role in Rog (2005) went unnoticed. Same year he played lead role in 7½ Phere, opposite Juhi Chawla. Though the screen chemistry of the lead pair and comedy elements received positive reviews from critics, the movie couldn’t create magic at box office. Billu was one of his early prominent roles in lead roles, which was widely publicized. He shared screen space with Mallika Sherawat in Hisss released one year later.

Billu, initially titled Billu Barber (2009) was co-produced by Shah Rukh Khan, who played a star in the movie directed by Priyadarshan. The movie which retold the friendship of Krishna and Kuchela was a remake of Malayalam hit – Kadha Parayumbol. Irrfan Khan reprised the role of poor friend Srinivasan in the movie, and received praises from critics. Though most of the songs filmed on SRK were super hit and the film received rave reviews, Billu was not a huge hit. Yet he started receiving more good offers from Hindi cinema. Prior to it, his appearance in Slumdog Millionaire already became a talk of the town.

After playing numerous memorable character roles in the decade of 2000s, he rose to stardom after he played the male lead in Paan Singh Tomar. His acting skills, body language and dialogue delivery lifted the movie to a new level, he received National film award for best lead actor. He also received Best Actor (Critics) award at Filmfare awards, apart from winning a nomination in popular actor category. The success of The Lunchbox released following year cemented his position in Bollywood, and he rose to the league of top lead actors. His lead role of a Sikh man in Punjabi film, Qissa opened to high reviews, and slowly Irrfan was grooming as a great actor.

His career best performances in Hindi cinema

His titular role in Paan Singh Tomar bagged him the single National film award

Definitely Paan Singh Tomar which gave him National award is his career defining role. Lunchbox, Piku and Hindi Medium are other milestone movies of his career, which were commercial hits too. Blackmail, Talwaar, D-Day and Angrezi Medium were other major works in a lead role. His negative roles in Maqbool, 7 Khoon Maaf and Hasil, supporting roles in New York and Mumbai Meri Jaan, Haider etc are other memorable performances. Post 2015, he did some of his career best movies in commercial cinema. Super success of Hindi Medium proved that he can carry a whole film on his shoulders and that he is a great entertaining actor with perfect comedy timing.

Thus over the years, he proved himself to be one of the most versatile and gifted actors of Hindi cinema, who can mould his acting skills to any type of role accordingly. After the success of Hindi Medium, his performance in Qarib Qarib Singlle and Karwaan were appreciated. His 2018 black comedy film Blackmail was a commercial hit, and his last release Angrezi Medium – sequel to Hindi Medium ran just a few days at theatres before nation went lockdown following corona epidemic.

He enjoyed career peak after the super success of Hindi Medium, which bagged him Filmfare award for best actor. But good things sometimes come to a sad note. He was just raising his wings to conquer new heights of his career, when everything virtually ended very soon. He was diagnosed with a rare cancer after which he stopped receiving new projects and moved to US for treatment.

Karwaan and Blackmail were released that time, and he came to India in 2019 for a brief period to shoot for Angrezi Medium. He was not associated with the promotion events of the movie. Yet we fans never expected that he was like an extra shining lamp going to be blown very soon. Really, Bollywood lost an immense talent, a loss which will always stay as a void. After the shocking death of Sridevi in 2018, here is yet another great talent to go, a premature death of an actor who had just started a new glorious beginning. Ironically both the actors were almost of the same age, when they left the world.

He was going through the treatment of colon treatment for a couple of days, before he took his last breath. Hardly had anyone imagined that the actor was going through such a bad health condition for the past few days. He lost his mother (in her 90’s) just 4 days back and he didn’t attend funeral function.

Along with his Bollywood career, Irrfan maintained a successful parallel career in British-American cinema

Police officer role in Oscar award winning film, Slumdog Millionaire, gave him international recognition. Bengali man in The Namesake, the chief of police in Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, a doctor in The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012, adult version of lead character Piscine in Life of Pi, businessmen in Jurassic World (2015) and Inferno (2016) are his memorable Hollywood roles. All these films were huge hits in international market. He was a familiar face of international film festival circuit, and he was a part of several internationally acclaimed films such as The Namesake, The Warrior etc

Needless to say he gained popularity in international cinema, through numerous character roles he played on screen, left a deep impression, and is the most successful Indian star in Hollywood cinema up-to-date. He played lead role opposite Kelly Macdonald in 2018 American drama film Puzzle, which was his last international release. After he was diagnosed with neuroendocrine tumor in 2018, he took a break from acting. This rare cancer can affect various body parts and finally he gave up his fight to colon infection.

Irrfan Khan – 30+ Interesting and less-known facts

–> His full name is Saahabzaade Irfan Ali Khan. His name is credited as Irrfan in Hollywood films. He dropped ‘Sahabzada’ tag from his name, which represented the family’s privileged past.

–> Initially known as Irfan Khan in Bollywood and television industry, he later added an ‘r’ to his name in 2012 just because he liked the sound of it, and not for numerology reasons.

–> Initially he wanted to become a cricketer. But things didn’t work in his favour. When he wanted to do something different from others, cine world and acting struck his mind.

–> He is the most successful Indian actor in Hollywood films, and the Indian actor with maximum number of releases in Hollywood.

–> He was born into a family which stayed away from films. Yet he reached the world of films, and worked hard to convince his family. In fact he lied to his parents to join NSD.

–> He convinced his mother that after learning acting from NSD he would become a professor at Jaipur University and that he won’t do dancing in films. At NSD he lied that he has already done more than 10 plays.

–> He lost his father at a young age and lost his mother Saeeda Begum just 4 days before his death. She was 95. Because of nationwide lockdown he was unable to attend the final rites of his mother. He paid his last respects to his mother through video conference.

–> He used to imitate Mithun Chakraborty during his younger days. His friends felt that he resembled Bollywood star.

–> He during his early struggling days in Mumbai has worked as an air conditioner repairman. One day he visited Rajesh Khanna’s house Aashirvaad as a serviceman.

–> He was a final year student at NSD while he did his film, Salaam Bombay and his role was briefed because of his height issue. He is about 6 feet 1 inch tall, one of the tallest actors of Bollywood.

–> Khan’s breakthrough role in international cinema came when he starred in 2002 low budget movie, The Warrior directed by debutante British director Asif Kapadi. The movie was selected for the prestigious San Sebastián film festival and won the Bafta award for best British film. After that he started receiving performance oriented roles in Bollywood and international cinema.

–> He had almost decided to give up his acting career after a decade old struggles in Mumbai. He was fed up with television roles, which he accepted with lack of interest. His lead role in The Warrior changed everything and he got into the right track after that.

–> When the first part of Jurassic Park series, Jurassic Park (1993) came out he didn’t have enough money to buy tickets. Those were his struggling days, before he started gaining recognition through ‘Chandrakanta’ – Doordarshan series. A few years later he worked in an important role in the sequel of the movie, Jurassic World in 2015.

–> In Namesake movie, he delivered English dialogues in Bengali accent. In Life of Pie, he delivered English in Canadian French Indian accent. In Jurrassic Park, he used American accent. In real life, he was not fluent in English during his early days in entertainment industry.

–> In need of money, he has accepted many roles too, during his early days. It has given him pain too, many times.

–> Namesake and Life of Pie were among his most challenging film roles. Many of the scenes of Life of Pie were reshot because of the change of an actor, and it was not easy to emulate emotional scenes once more. He appeared in the third season of ‘In Treatment’ TV series, and it was one of the most difficult roles he did till now.

–> Irrfan Khan acted in a short film ‘Road to Ladakh’ in 2004, which was shown at different film festivals. He played a terrorist in this film. He also starred in Bengali language German film, Shadows of Time, the first feature-length film of director Florian Gallenberger.

–> He objects to the use of word ‘Bollywood’, because the movie industry has its own technique, nothing to do with Hollywood, but originates from Parsi Theatre.

–> A role he doesn’t want to redo on screen – His guest role in Jai Hanuman TV series. He played a brief role of Ratnakar/Valmiki in the series.

Irrfan Khan as Ratnakar in mythological series, Jai Hanuman

–> Actor Shahbaz Khan who played the lead role of Prince in Chandrakanta fantasy series in 1995 encouraged him to take the meaty role of Badrinath in the show. It was this single negative shaded role which became a major turning point of his acting career.

–> He played the antagonist in TV series, Darr. He appeared as a psycho thriller, and shared screen space with Kay Kay Menon.

–> He dubbed for Baloo’s voice in the Hindi version of the animated movie, The Jungle Book released in 2016.

–> He declined roles in Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children and Mira Nair’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, as he felt that he is a deep religious person.

–> He was detained twice detained at Los Angeles airport just because his name was similar to a terrorist suspect. He is one among that long league of Indian Muslim actors who faced such bad experiences from US post 9/11 attacks.

–> He received National film award for best actor for a biopic of a dead person. After Ajay Devgan for The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002) he became the second Bollywood actor to receive National award for a biopic. Though not a biopic film, Amitabh’s National award winning role in Black was based on the life of Helen Keller’s struggles and her relationship with her teacher, the student played by Rani Mukerji on screen. Read more.

–> Leading Malayalam actress Shobana shared screen space with Irrfan Khan in her debut Hindi movie, Apna Asmaan in 2007.

–> Two leading Malayalam actors of present times marked their Bollywood screen debut, sharing screen space with Irrfan Khan, who played lead roles in the films. Parvathy Thiruvothu played lead role opposite Irrfan in her debut Bollywood flick, Qarib Qarib Singlle in 2017. Malayalis’ heartthrob Dulquer Salmaan marked screen debut with 2018 release, Karwaan, which was the penultimate movie of Irrfan. Though both movies received rave reviews from critics, couldn’t gain big at box office counters.

–> He shared screen space with several international beauty pageant winners who worked in Bollywood. He played one of the husbands of Priyanka Chopra in 7 Khoon Maaf, husband of Lara Dutta in Billu and shared screen space with Aishwarys Rai in Jazbaa.

–> He was a recipient of 4 Filmfare awards from 6 nominations, interestingly in 4 different acting categories – Best actor, Best actor (critics), Best supporting actor and Best villain. Though he lost awards in two nominations, same movies earned him Filmfare award in other acting categories.

–> He is a recipient of 5 Screen awards, mostly in best actor category. He received 4 more nominations.

–> After Piku he was to star with Deepika Padukone for a gangster movie directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. The project got delayed due to the actor’s ill health. Now it’s never to happen. Read more.

–> He met his future wife – the writer and a Hindu Brahmin Sutapa Sikdar while studying in NSD. They got married in 1995, when he had just started working in Doordarshan TV serials. He passed away in their Silver Jubilee Anniversary year.

–> And last and most shocking – Bollywood movie buffs lost yet another shining star within 24 hours of Irrfan Khan’s demise – Rishi Kapoor. It’s a very rare phenomenon of Bollywood to loss two big stars within a short time span. The stars have many similarities in the last phase of life too. Both were diagnosed with cancer almost at the same time, and both have been bravely fighting for the last two years. Highly professional, they did a few movies while undergoing treatment, and returned to motherland after treatment in US almost at the same time. They made us believe that all is well, but shocked everyone with their sudden demise during lock down. There is an interesting mathematical conundrum in the date of deaths too. Irrfan Khan born in year 1967 passed away aged 53 and Rishi Kapoor born in 1952 passed away aged 67!  (Just a miss!) They shared screen space for a single movie, D-Day, which was critically appreciated. 


An actor par excellence, he left an unmatched legacy. Many of his acting talents are still to be explored, but we didn’t have enough time. It’s said, geniuses are short-lived. I think it’s true. Perhaps after Smita Patel, he is that one actor who lost his life at his career peak, when he had so much to give to Indian cinema. Only a few artists have enjoyed such a celebrated status & stardom along with immense talent and versatility. The most versatile male actor of new millennium, Bollywood will now be known as ‘Before & After Irrfan Khan’. With a heavy heart, I am ending this note, paying tributes to one of the greatest and gifted artists Indian film industry has ever heard.

Thanks a lot and a lot and a lot Irrfan for entertaining us for the past few decades, and to show youngsters what the real acting is. Most of your recent roles made me laugh. But you made me cry today. You will never be forgotten, and will always be missed. A huge loss to all those who love serious filmmaking, good movies and performances! Thanks once again. May your soul rest in peace! Love you.


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A freelance writer and blogger by profession since October 2011, interested in writing over a wide range of topics. Hope you enjoy my writings. I belong to one of the beautiful places of the world, Kerala, nicknamed as 'God's own country'.

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2 Responses

  1. Soumya G P says:

    Woww, Sandy.. wonderful tribute…i loved it…love the artist…one of those whom I have admired the most ever…Thank you…❤️

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