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Irrfan Khan, Indian actor in Life of Pi, dies of cancer at 53

Irrfan Khan, an Indian actor who brought versatility and style to recent hit films and had roles in Hollywood movies such as Life of Pi and The Namesake, died on Wednesday at age 53.

His death, after a prolonged battle with cancer, was confirmed by a spokesperson who said Khan was surrounded by family at the time. He is survived by his wife and two children.

“He fought the many battles that came with it,” the spokesperson said in a statement, referring to the diagnosis of Khan’s rare cancer in 2018.

Khan was among the first Indian actors to make a consistent mark in Western cinema, following in the footsteps of crossover pioneers such as Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth and Om Puri.

“An incredible talent,” said Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, among the tributes on Twitter that followed Khan’s death. “A gracious colleague. A prolific contributor to the world of cinema … left us too soon creating a huge vacuum.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also expressed his condolences.

“Irrfan Khan’s demise is a loss to the world of cinema and theatre. He will be remembered for his versatile performances across different mediums,” Modi said in a tweet.

Bollywood slow to embrace him

Born Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan in the western desert state of Rajasthan in a family with no ties to the cinema, the actor recalled in interviews that as children, he and his siblings were not allowed to watch movies.

The only exception was when a visiting uncle took them to the theatre. Inspired by India’s art house cinema of the 1980s. Khan decided to make a career in the field and moved to New Delhi to study theatre.

He then moved to Mumbai in search of acting jobs, but the Bollywood films of the 1990s did not present opportunities for the understated acting that Khan favoured.

Khan worked in serials for Indian television for close to a decade and sought bit parts in films.

In 2001, as he was close to giving up, British filmmaker Asif Kapadia offered him the lead role in The Warrior. The film won a BAFTA for Best British Film and was Britain’s entry to the Oscars. It also opened the doors to Hollywood, which appreciated Khan long before Bollywood claimed him.

He went on to act in indie hits such as Mira Nair’s The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s book, as well as more popular fare, including Jurassic World and Slumdog Millionaire.

Members of the cast of Slumdog Millionaire pose backstage with the award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture during the 15th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 25, 2009, in Los Angeles. From left are: Irrfan Khan, Dev Patel, Freida Pinto and Anil Kapoor. (Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press)

In The Namesake, he won praise for his sensitive portrayal of a man who moves to the United States and grapples with the crises of identity that first-generation immigrants can face.

Khan also acted in filmmaker Ritesh Batra’s debut, The Lunchbox. An intimate story about a cantankerous man and the woman who mistakenly sends him her husband’s lunch box one day, the film won worldwide acclaim, including in India.

In March 2018, Khan announced that he had been diagnosed with a neuroendrocrine tumour. He subsequently returned from London, where he was being treated, and shot a film Angrezi Medium (English Medium), which was released in Indian cinemas last month.

Khan was absent during promotions and had not been seen in public since news of his diagnosis.

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