An extraordinary ordinary man: How Irrfan Khan broke the mould of the typical Bollywood leading man

The actor, who died on Wednesday, carved out a niche for himself as an actor who could shapeshift into any role

I met Irrfan Khan at a theatre festival held at his alma mater, the National School of Drama in New Delhi, in the winter of 2010. At the time, he was a familiar face in the Indian film industry, but did not command the kind of fandom and euphoria associated with the more popular Khans of Bollywood –Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman.

However, he had carved out a niche for himself as an actor who could shapeshift into any role, no matter how big or small, and leave a lasting impression.

He never conformed to a type, a rare and bold approach in the Indian film industry. In Bollywood, actors often choose either to go the “masala” route –starring in mindless films that rake in the moolah – or pick "parallel cinema", movies that give actors the chance to showcase their emotional prowess, but never see as much commercial success.

But Khan was above simply choosing one option. He seamlessly transitioned between the two, even finding his way to Hollywood, where his choice in roles stood out from the stereotypical Indian characters seen on screen (think Apu in The Simpsons).

Even when he starred in Hollywood films, he never put on a fake accent, never promoted his films on late night shows and indulged in no aggressive PR stunts, which is why he earned respect for his craft, working with directors including Wes Anderson, Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle and Mira Nair, to name a few.

And that is what made him an actor par excellence – he worked on building his characters, not his six-pack abs. Even in Bollywood, there were no song and dance routines, no item numbers (in fact, he featured in a sketch parodying the concept with popular comedy group AIB), no taking off his shirt. Indeed, he was one of the few Bollywood actors who wooed audiences with his clothes on.

Khan never lobbied for awards, yet he won the highest honours. He took home the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture for Slumdog Millionaire, Best Actor for The Lunchbox at the Dubai International Film Festival and the Padma Shri (the fourth-highest civilian award in India), among others.

Aarti Jhurani with Irrfan Khan in 2010. Courtesy Aarti Jhurani
Aarti Jhurani with Irrfan Khan in 2010. Courtesy Aarti Jhurani

And, more than anything else, it was the respect and love he earned for portraying real characters on screen that made Khan truly stand out. His death is a loss not only for the entertainment industry, but for all his fans who depended on him to play realistic and relatable characters.

Whether it was his turn as the leery Monty in Life in a Metro, as a thirtysomething man looking for a match, the unassuming Saajan with a dead-end office job in The Lunchbox, or as Raj, a father desperate for his child to get into a good school in Hindi Medium, he was truly an extraordinary ordinary man.

He lead a life like an ordinary man, too. He was never in the news for the wrong reasons –no scandals, no vulgar displays of wealth. Instead, he lead a quiet life with his wife and two sons.

And so yesterday, the news of his death hit me like a tonne of bricks, as it did millions of other people around the world, judging by the posts on social media.

I did not see it coming, I was not prepared to bid adieu. But, as he once said in Life of Pi: “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”

Updated: April 30, 2020 01:41 PM

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