Long before Priyanka Chopra Jonas made inroads into the West and became a global currency, there was actor Irrfan Khan who paved the way for Indian stars to dazzle Hollywood and prove that they could straddle both entertainment worlds with ease and agility.
In his career filled with more than 100 films, Khan worked with Hollywood greats including Ang Lee (‘Life Of Pi), Mira Nair (‘The Namesake’, 2006) and Danny Boyle (‘Slumdog Millionaire’, 2008) and also made Bollywood court him relentlessly.
‘Elizabeth’ director Shekhar Kapur wasn’t far off the mark when he described Khan as India’s “most successful export to Hollywood”.
Khan who succumbed to complications arising from his battle with cancer belonged to a minority of Indian actors who created ripples in Hollywood.
The actor’s tryst with international cinema came with British director Asif Ali’s ‘The Warrior’ in 2001 in which Khan played a warlord. Film folklore has it that Mira Nair — whom he worked as the lead in ‘The Namesake’ — cut his role mercilessly in ‘Salaam Bombay!’ (1998), but made amends with her stirring follow-up ‘that chronicled the angst of first generation Indian immigrants in the US soil.
It was his role as an ageing Indian father Ashok in ‘The Namesake’ that made the West sit up and take notice of his incredible acting ability. A few other distinct credits strengthened his hold in Hollywood, an industry that is known to be difficult for foreign actors to make a dent.
His role as Pakistani police officer in ‘A Mighty Heart’ (2007) with Angelina Jolie had our hearts and signalled his growing clout in Hollywood.
It wasn’t just stirring, festival-friendly independent films that helped him court the West and win them over. Iconic director Ang Lee also approached Khan for his fantasy adventure ‘Life Of Pi’ (2012) and presented Khan in an avatar far away from his Bollywood persona.
The self-made actor, who lost his battle to neuroendocrine cancer, was also a part of huge Hollywood blockbusters such as ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (2012) in which he played a sharp scientist and ‘Jurassic World’ (2015), in which he played a billionaire.
One of the most remarkable factors that defined Khan as an actor was his ability to transcend borders and cultures. Khan had it all under control and shrunk the world with his talent.