Born: January 7, 1967;

Died: April 19, 2020.

ACTOR Irrfan Khan, one of India’s most successful stars has died aged 53. He has been diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumour in 2018, and died after being admitted to a Mumbai hospital with a colon infection.

Best known in the west for his roles in such major films as Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi, he was widely considered to have been one of the best actors of his generation.

His story was one of hard-fought battles and determination. Born Saahabzaade Irfan Ali Khan, the son of a tyre-seller in Rajasthan, he had dreamt at first of becoming a cricketer, but his family did not have the money to allow him to travel the country while making his way up the leagues.

His dream then switched to acting, but it was not an ambition shared by his parents. “We were a traditional feudal family, so there was no question of me becoming an actor,” he once told the Hindustan Times. In time, he won his family over and became an actor.

He studied at the elite National School of Drama where he trained in Shakespeare and Chekhov. But his training there, says the AlJazeera news site, “did little to ease his entry into the Hindi film industry, which was largely focused at the time on churning out formulaic song-and-dance blockbusters”.

He struggled continually to persuade the non-Bollywood Indian film producers to hire him. After a decade playing mainly supporting and character roles in soap TV, he felt let down and angry. “I came into this industry to tell stories and do cinema - and I was stuck in television,” he said.

Indeed, he considered quitting acting altogether. The slings and arrows of acting fortune continued to be cast down on him in 1988 when he landed a role in Salaam Bombay! (1988), a film directed by first-timer Mira Nair, only to learn that his part was slashed down to a cameo. He told India’s Open magazine that he had sobbed for hours on learning the news, “but it changed something within me. I was prepared for anything after that.”

Khan needed a new resolve. In February 1995 he married the writer and fellow NSD graduate, Sutapa Sikdar, and they went on to have two sons, Babil and Ayan.

British director Asif Kapadia cast Khan as a mercenary in his 2001 film The Warrior, a low-budget, samurai-esque tale, shot in India. When it was selected for the prestigious San Sebastián film festival, and won the Bafta award for best British film, Indian producers were now alerted to their home-grown talent.

At the same time, a new generation of directors were keen to move out of the Bollywood constrictions; Khan, ever keen to ignore Bollywood tropes, was able to utilise his Shakespearean training in contemporary Hindi adaptations of Macbeth and Hamlet.

Fortunes again began to shift slightly in 2004 when Khan found himself starring in, and winning his first award, a small film, entitled Haasil. But major studio success continued to elude him; producers considered the tall, lanky actor with the haunted eyes “too unconventional” to play the leading-man roles. But gradually, his worth was realised and he came to be recognised as one of India’s major crossover actors, those who could work in the East and the West, such as Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth and Om Puri.

Khan landed the role of the chief of police in Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, which was to lead to the part that gave him major international recognition. In Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire he played a police inspector once again. The film won eight Academy Awards and seven BAFTAs. “I never knew it was going to be popular worldwide in such a big way, with the Oscars and all that,” said Khan in a 2015 interview with CNN.

Success bred success. His next role was in Life of Pi, which won multiple Golden Globes and Academy Awards. He also played supporting roles in major US films such as The Amazing Spider-Man, Jurassic World and Inferno. He also had a role in director Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, written specifically for him.

Did success change him? Khan had a reputation for modesty and integrity, said his peers. But he was certainly an actor with idiosyncrasies and he went through a period of re-evaluation. He dropped his surname in 2012, maintaining that “he wanted his work to define him, not his lineage.” He also added an extra ‘r’ to his name saying he liked the sound of the addition.

Danny Boyle has spoken of the loss of his friend and leading actor. “Irrfan was a wonderful actor and a pivotal figure in the making of Slumdog Millionaire”, he said.

“It wasn’t a huge role, and in fact on paper it was even less rewarding-looking.

“But Irrfan saw the possibility of guiding our audience – with his dignity, his grace, his charm, his intelligence and his calmness – through this crossword-puzzle of an idea of a film.”

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi said that Khan’s demise was a loss to the world of cinema and theatre.

“He will be remembered for his versatile performances across different mediums. My thoughts are with his family, friends and admirers. May his soul rest in peace.”

Irrfan Khan is survived by his wife and their two sons.

BRIAN BEACOM