Irrfan Khan was a distinguished and charismatic star in Hindi- and English-language movies whose hardworking career was an enormously valuable bridge between South Asian and Hollywood cinema. He was armed with a sensitive and seductive gaze: his good looks matured in middle age in such a way that he could play dramatic or villainous roles but also romantic leads of a certain age and of a certain emotional wistfulness. You could almost call him Mumbais Clooney — although it would be condescending to explain this colossal Indian star in Hollywood terms.
I first became aware of Irrfan Khan and his marvellous screen presence in Asif Kapadias terrific 2001 film The Warrior, in which he has a powerful lead role as the warrior Lafcadia, the erstwhile servant and hitman to a murderous warlord who renounces the way of violence, retreats to the hills and must then confront another warrior who has been sent to kill him. It is an amazingly atmospheric movie (which Kapadia brought off with enormous skill before his own shift into documentaries) and Khans cool samurai hauteur was vital in making it work.
After a stretch of playing Bollywood bad guys, Irrfan Khan found some further success in the Wilderesque ensemble romantic comedy Life in a … Metro in 2007, in which he was the gauche and leering guy with which one female character finds herself uncomfortably fixed up on a date. But perhaps the actual star-making breakthrough came with his lead role in the real-life drama Paan Singh Tomar in 2010, an extraordinary story that is a mix of Chariots of Fire and Ned Kelly. Irrfan Khan played an Indian soldier whose talent for running made him a medallist at the Asian Games in the late 1950s – and then in the late 70s became a daaku, or rebel bandit, when he was involved in a murderous land feud in the Chambal valley with family members – he refused to surrender to armed police despatched to arrest him, resulting in a spectacular siege during which he was shot dead. The role – similar to The Warrior in some ways – was perfect for Khans ability to suggest mainstream heroism, but also a kind of capo di tutti i capi bad-guy aura, all encompassed in a still watchfulness in the eyes.
In the English-language world, Khans international prestige had been cemented two years before that as the police detective in Danny Boyles feelgood hit Slumdog Millionaire, a Mumbai-set film based around the TV contest Who Wants to Be a Millionare? with Dev Patel as Jamal, the teenager from the ghetto who somehow found himself within an ace of winning the top prize on the legendary gameshow. He has to explain himself to the cop, and Khans mixture of tough, careworn authority with a hint of gentleness makes him just right for the role, as he almost certainly would not have been good casting for the brasher part of the Tarrant-esque host, played by Anil Kapoor. He was well received in Mira Nairs immigrant drama The Namesake in 2006, and was also a potent presence in Ang Lees Life of Pi.
In the last decade, Irrfan Khan took what were arguably paycheque roles in Hollywood as the stereotypical enigmatic Indian plutocrat in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) as Rajit Ratha, the corporate executive overseeing the fateful experimentation laboratory, and in Jurassic World (2015), playing the parks super-rich owner. Cipher roles, perhaps, but ones to which he brought a deadpan yet debonair good humour.
These were only part of a string of credits, but the movie that allowed him to steal everyones hearts was the romantic drama The Lunchbox. He played the middle-aged office worker who finds that the wrong lunchbox has been delivered to his desk, with a note inside. This leads him into a heartrendingly chaste, romantic exchange of letters with an unhappy married woman, stuck at home in her housewife job, as he is stuck in his salaryman role. Irrfan Khan found his finest hour in this story, with an exquisitely gentle, subtle performance. Rewatching The Lunchbox and The Warrior would be great ways to remember him.