I realized, as I began writing this memoriam of actor Irrfan Khan, that I would have to say the word “was.” That I would have to refer to Khan in the past tense. That I would have to accept that the man is truly gone. I don’t think I’ve actually done this yet. There is a distance I’m struggling to move through, a gap between what I know to be real and what I refuse to let myself feel. I haven’t yet opened myself up to the loss of Irrfan Khan, the Indian actor whose presence, over nearly 35 years onscreen, was one of constant kindness, deep intelligence, steadfast morality, and profound gentleness. It will come to me, I’m sure, like a sudden wound, the kind of pain that makes you double over, the intensity of which will linger for a while. Khan died on April 29, 2020. He was 53 years old.
Khan had a lengthy career in India before working in British and American productions: He worked on Mira Nair’s first feature, Salaam Bombay!, although his character didn’t make the final cut; he played the revolutionary poet and Marxist Makhdoom Mohiuddin in the Indian TV series Kahkashan; he bounced around Bollywood. I’m sorry to be superficial here, but the man was striking; I’ve rarely seen an actor do so much with just a look. Those deep-set eyes, that unwavering gaze—Rami Malek wishes. (Oh, also: Khan was a very snazzy dresser on the red carpet, often willing to experiment with bright prints and florals, outfits that mixed both Western and Indian influences, and off-kilter eyeglass shapes; once again, Rami Malek wishes.)
And then came Khan’s breakthrough to foreign audiences in 2001’s The Warrior, directed by Asif Kapadia, who would go on to great acclaim with the documentaries Senna and Amy. But The Warrior is a different thing, a combination of Lawrence of Arabia and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in its epic scale and in its narrative about a one-time enforcer, Lafcadia (Khan), who attempts to lead his old life behind. Set in feudal India, and building up to a chase through the Himalayas, The Warrior works because of Khan’s sometimes laconic acting style, how shocking it is when he goes from reactive to proactive, the control he had over his body and the wisdom and melancholy radiating from it.
That combination—a sort of profound regret, an awareness of mistakes made, but a determination to keep going, keep living—would be the guiding force of his co-starring performance in 2007’s The Namesake. A reunion between Khan and Nair, The Namesake is the movie that made me love Khan so much, a fascination so fierce that when my film critic colleague Travis Hopson interviewed Khan for another project at Sundance years later, and asked Khan to call me as a favor, I simultaneously screamed and burst into tears once Khan said hello. All I really remember from that very emotionally intense phone call is how gracious Khan was, and how patiently he listened to my blabbering about how much The Namesake meant to me, and how he thanked me for loving the film. Khan was selling himself short, but his graciousness makes sense, doesn’t it? That seems to be who Khan was.
That aura is an undeniable asset to Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, which follows the Indian Ganguli family. The first half of the film focuses on Ashoke (Khan) and Ashima (Indian film star and singer Tabu), who are set up by their parents in an arranged marriage; although they’re strangers, Khan’s Ashoke is immediately entranced by Ashima, this young woman who makes a joke at his expense in front of their respective families. The two of them fall, incrementally but gradually, in love, and Ashoke’s treatment of Ashima is a combination of loyalty, affection, and amusement. He is a little teasing, and then increasingly impressed. He’s flattered when she uses her status as a librarian to bring books home to him first. Theirs is the kind of relationship I see mirrored by my own parents—not physically affectionate, because that would be inappropriate, especially in front of the children. But warm. Protective. Respectful. The kind of strength and partnership that comes from building an entirely new life together, in an entirely new country, with only each other to trust.
Khan’s portrayal of Ashoke made me think deeper about the sacrifices my own father had made coming to this country (coincidentally: the filming of The Namesake brought Khan to America for the first time), and the relationship between Ashoke and his first-gen son Gogol (played by Kal Penn) gutted me. The space between them, and the little ways Ashoke tries to understand his first-born, and how consistently Gogol fails to recognize how his father is trying to reach him. This scene, when Ashoke shares with Gogol the story of the train crash that nearly killed him and why he chose to name his son after the Russian absurdist author of The Overcoat, is so unrelentingly affective and so profoundly moving because of Khan’s strength as an actor. Because of how he tells this story, the rhythm and the detail; because of that half-smile, because of how he pronounces “America,” because of how he watches Gogol’s reaction to this bit of history, because of how he gives Gogol the fullness of his attention. Because of how “You remind me of everything that followed” is more meaningful than any “I love you.”
The Namesake feels like a forgotten film (we don’t respect Mira Nair enough, BTW), but Khan’s performance has remained locked away in my heart ever since. And Khan would continue acting in projects that underscored his strengths as an actor, how right he seemed as a figure navigating murky waters of morality toward greater emotional truths. In Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, as the police inspector who is initially violently doubtful of Jamal’s (Dev Patel) story, and then eventually, but confidently, admits that Jamal’s knowledge could be “bizarrely plausible.” As the adult Pi Patel in Life of Pi, Khan started us on a journey that would span oceans, question the motivations of God, and marvel at the majesty of the world around us.
In 2013’s The Lunchbox, Khan was a proper romantic lead as Saajan, playing a widower who begins to fall in love with a woman after he accidentally receives the lunchbox she prepared for her husband.
The film’s depiction of love as built through food and through storytelling was gloriously soothing, and Khan’s performance so tender, and a few years later, Khan would play a similar sort of role opposite Kelly Macdonald in 2018’s Puzzle. As Khan got a little older, he honestly became more of a sex symbol, a man quietly confident in his own knowledge of who he was and what he wanted. And if what he wanted was you, well then! You lucky jerk!
Every so often, Khan appeared in a dud; he was wasted in Jurassic World as the owner of the park, given far less to do than the equivalent John Hammond character in the original Jurassic Park.
But in his native India, Khan was given more varied opportunities, most often in mainstream comedies: the mega-successful Hindi Medium, the romantic comedy Qarib Qarib Singlle, and the road-trip comedy Karwaan. His final film, the comedy Angrezi Medium, a sequel of sorts to the aforementioned Hindu Medium, was released in India on March 13, 2020. If you can, seek out any of those films—they’ll offer a different version of Khan than what we’re used to his from American and British releases. That’s what acting is, and goddammit, was Irrfan Khan great at it. May he rest in peace.
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