Sahabzade Irrfan

Updated: Jan 26, 2020, 07:54 IST | Meenakshi Shedde | Mumbai

There's a moving anecdote about Irrfan being cast in Mira Nair's debut film Salaam Bombay!

Illustration/ Uday Mohite
Illustration/ Uday Mohite

picAseem Chhabra is rapidly consolidating a reputation for writing eminently readable biographies of popular Bollywood stars, without even interviewing the subjects of his books. He is the author of Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star (2016; Kapoor was unwell), Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star (2018; Chopra wanted to write her own biography), and, more recently, Irrfan Khan: The Man, the Dreamer, The Star (Khan has been unwell, suffering from a neuroendocrine tumour, a rare cancer; 2020, Rupa Publications, Rs 500). Chhabra, journalist, writer and festival director of the New York Indian Film Festival, has lived in the US for several decades, and regularly spends time in India. His books reflect an interest in the careers of acclaimed Bollywood actors, whose work has also transcended into Hollywood and/or world cinema.

The book on Irrfan is a delightful read. Well researched, Chhabra quotes a number of people who worked with Irrfan closely—including Mira Nair, Meghna Gulzar, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, the Bangladeshi director of Doob (No Bed of Roses), starring Irrfan—and the book is peppered with insights and anecdotes.

According to, Irrfan has acted in 155 projects. A National School of Drama graduate, originally from Jaipur, Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan's finest films include the Indian films Haasil, Maqbool, Paan Singh Tomar, Haider, Piku and Talwar, and his international films include The Warrior, The Namesake, A Mighty Heart (with Angelina Jolie), Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi, The Lunchbox, Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost and The Song of Scorpions. He has also acted in the Hollywood films The Amazing Spider-Man, Jurassic World and Inferno.

There's a moving anecdote about Irrfan being cast in Mira Nair's debut film Salaam Bombay! After Nair had cast Irrfan—while he was still studying at NSD—as one of the street children, he workshopped with the actual street children. But, when they did test shots, the malnourished children were much shorter, whereas Irrfan, over six feet, stood out oddly. "So, I had to uncast him and I made the very difficult decision just two days before the shoot. And I told him, 'Irrfan bhai, ek hi scene bacha hai (there's only a small scene left)… yeh kar dijiye abhi (please do this for now), but I owe you'," said Nair. She kept her word, but it would be 20 long years before she could cast him in Migration (a short), New York, I Love You (another short), and the plum role of Ashoke Ganguli in The Namesake. Chhabra quotes Irrfan in an earlier interview, "I remember sobbing all night when Mira told me that my part was reduced to merely nothing. But it changed something within me. I was prepared for anything after that." It would have been interesting to know how Irrfan's formative years shaped him, how he deals with career insecurities, his philosophical interests, and what he is like as a family man, but that's for another book, I suppose.

Full disclosure: Aseem is also a friend, but surely I can't hold that against him?

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist.
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