Irrfan Khan, the Indian-born actor who achieved considerable success in both Bollywood and the west, has died aged 53. He had been admitted to the intensive care unit of Mumbai’s Kokilaben hospital on Tuesday with a colon infection.
In March 2018, he revealed he had been diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumour, but after extensive treatment he recovered well enough to shoot Angrezi Medium, the film which would turn out to be his last, and whose release this March was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Best known to English-speaking audiences as the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire, Khan was also a Bollywood mainstay, acting in hits such as Haider and Hindi Medium.
Khan was born Saahabzaade Irfan Ali Khan in Jaipur in 1966, the son of a tyre seller, and went to drama school after failing as a cricketer. He struggled to make headway in the film industry, despite being cast in a small role as a letter writer in Mira Nair’s 1988 Salaam Bombay! – to his frustration he only managed to find regular work in low-grade TV soap operas. “I came into this industry to tell stories and do cinema and I was stuck in television,” he told.
Khan’s breakthrough role came from an unlikely source: the feature debut of then-unknown British director Asif Kapadia, whose low budget samurai-esque tale The Warrior was shot in India. Released in 2002, The Warrior was selected for the prestigious San Sebastian film festival and won the Bafta award for best British film. Khan subsequently broke into mainstream Indian films, often playing cops or villains – including the title role of Maqbool, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in the Mumbai underworld. More orthodox Bollywood productions followed, such as Rog and the slice-of-life musical Life in a … Metro.
Khan also maintained a parallel career in Anglo-American cinema: he played the chief of police in Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, and another police man in the sensationally successful Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to win eight Oscars. Later roles saw him become a reliable standby character actor in big-budget Hollywood films, playing a doctor in The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012 and businessmen in Jurassic World (2015) and Inferno (2016). In 2012 he also played the adult version of the lead character in another Oscar-winner: the Ang Lee-directed Life of Pi.
Meanwhile, Khan found box office success with the Indian-produced art film The Lunchbox, in which he played an accountant who strikes up a letter-writing romance with unhappy housewife Nimrat Kaur. Khan also continued his high Bollywood profile with significant roles in the Amitabh Bachchan comedy Piku and Hindu Medium, as a rich businessman trying to get his daughter into a good school.
Khan is survived by his wife Sutapa Sikdar, and sons Babil and Ayan.