The late Irrfan Khan wasn’t just revered as an actor in India, he was admired internationally as well for the way he seamlessly got under the skin of each character he essayed. He burst into the international scene with Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior (2001), which won the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the BAFTA Awards. In 2018, he acted as the romantic lead in The Puzzle. He was never considered a romantic lead in India and it was something he reportedly joked about. He finally got his wish across the seven seas, the same year he was diagnosed with neuroendocrine tumour. He could have got many more starring roles out there in the West if only his career wasn’t tragically cut off by his untimely death. Presenting a list of international productions where his acting sparkled.
The Warrior (2001)
Director: Asif Kapadia
Cast: Irrfan Khan
It has a Buddhist parable-like quality in the sense that it features a warrior who vows to give up the sword upon having an epiphany. Lafcadia (Irfan Khan) is an enforcer in the employ of a cruel Raja from Rajasthan who is sent to teach a village a lesson as its denizens aren’t paying taxes. His men kill, rape and loot but suddenly, Lafcadia has had enough and doesn’t want to lead such a life any more. His employer now wants him dead and with a young killer hot on his tail, Lafcadia wants to return to his village in the Himalayas. Accompanying him is an orphaned thief (Noor Mani) whose family he may have killed and a blind woman (Damayanti Marfatia) who is on a pilgrimage to a holy lake. This was the film which introduced Irrfan to the West and made him secure an international footing. His natural acting was much praised by the critics.
The Namesake (2006)
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Tabu, Irrfan Khan, Kal Penn, Zuleikha Robinson, Jacinda Barrett, Sebastian Roché
This coming-of-age tale is based on the novel The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and features Kal Penn as Gogol, a teenager who is born to Indian parents in America and who can’t come to terms with his Indian roots. Irrfan plays his father Ashoke, who has a PhD in fibre optics and is a university professor in America and yet hasn’t forgotten his Indian, or more particularly, Bengali roots and customs. There is a strange disconnect between the father and son, as he fails to understand his son’s Americanised ways. It’s only after his death due to a heart attack that the son begins to miss the father. The film ends with the son reading his father’s favourite author, Nikolai Gogol, after whom he was named.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, Irrfan Khan
This comedy stars Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Schwartzman as three estranged brothers who agree to meet in India a year after their father’s funeral. Irrfan has a relatively small role in this coming-of-age film. During the course of their adventures, the three leads rescue three young boys from drowning but one passes away. They bring the body to the village and Irrfan plays the dead boy’s father. They attend the funeral and that takes them to the memory of their own father’s funeral. It makes them visit their mother, who has become a nun living in a convent in the Himalayas and the family enjoys a brief moment of reconciliation.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
The film is a Hollywood version of Salim-Javed films. When Jamal (Dev Patel) a youth living in Mumbai slums begins to answer all the questions in a game show with big prize money, the show host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) becomes suspicious and wants the police to interrogate him. Irrfan plays the police inspector who listens to the stories behind each correct answer. He finds them to be highly plausible and clears Jamal of the cheating charges, and lets him go. Jamal eventually wins the competition and is also united with his long lost love through it.
New York, I Love You (2009)
This episodic film has some 11 directors and a multitude of actors offering stories that reflect on the multiculturalism of New York. Irrfan Khan acts in the section directed by Mira Nair, which stars him and Natalie Portman. Both play diamond merchants. She’s a Hasidic Jewish diamond broker Rifka and Irrfan Khan is her supplier, Mansuhkbai, a devout Jain from India. She has beautiful hair which he admires and in between the business banter, she confides that she’s going to cut all her hair before her wedding, as required by her faith. He’s a little taken aback by that but confides that this practice isn’t heard of in India as well as people offer their hair to God as a mark of devotion. It’s a tender piece containing a variety of emotions and one that should have got a full-length treatment.
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Director: Marc Webb
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, Martin Sheen, Sally Field
In this superhero origin film, Irrfan had a small but important role — that of Rajit Ratha, who is Dr Curt Connors’ supervisor. Connors is working on a limb regeneration serum using lizard DNA and is pressured by Ratha to hasten the process. He injects himself with the serum and becomes The Lizard. He wants to convert the whole of humanity into man-lizard hybrids and plans to release the serum into the air. How Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen (Emma Stone), his love interest and fellow science buff stop that from happening forms the crux of the story.
Life of Pi (2012)
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu
Based on a novel written by Yann Martel carrying the same name the film narrates the story of an Indian man named Pi Patel. He tells a novelist about how at 16 he survived a shipwreck and is adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for company. The tiger and the boy become uneasy companions at best and the boy learns that caring for the big cat is helping him keep sane. The duo have many adventures before he drifts off the coast of Mexico and is eventually rescued, while the tiger escapes into the jungle. The real question is, was the animal real or was it a figment of the boy’s imagination? Irrfan plays the adult Pi and the de facto narrator of the film.
Jurassic World (2015)
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Irrfan Khan
Set 22 years after the events of Jurassic Park, Jurassic World takes place on the same fictional Central American island of Isla Nublar, which is located off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, where a theme park of cloned dinosaurs has operated for nearly a decade. The park plunges into chaos when a transgenic dinosaur escapes from its enclosure and goes on a rampage. Irrfan Khan plays the park’s new billionaire owner Simon Masrani who clearly has learnt nothing from the park’s history and orders a new hybrid dinosaur to be created. This Indominus rex carries genes of the best predatory dinosaurs and hence theoretically is indestructible. The dinosaur predictably goes on a rampage and it takes a combination of the old T-Rex and the park’s Mosasaurus to put a stop to the carnage.
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish, Cesare Cremonini
A billionaire (Ben Foster) feels humanity is sucking the world dry and wants to cull fifty per cent of the world’s population. He rejigs the Black Death virus to get to his final solution. And just in case something happens to him before he could release the virus, he gets together a set of clues to help his followers reach the secret resting place of the virus bomb. Somehow, after his death, the breadcrumbs end up attracting Dr Robert Langdon, who traipses the Renaissance trail in a now-familiar fashion and outwits the bad guys in the end, despite suffering from retrograde amnesia. Irrfan Khan plays Harry “The Provost” Sims, head of a super-secret, privately funded organisation called The Consortium. Khan is in full Bond villain mode here, dapperly clad, carrying a variety of vintage knives and asking rhetorical questions to his assistants. He is the real flesh and blood character in the film, starting as a bad guy and after realising his mistake, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good of humanity. Khan plays Sims with consummate ease and his character should have been explored more.
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Bubba Weiler, Austin Abrams, Liv Hewson
This remake of the Argentine film Rompecabezas (2009) centres around a bored housewife named Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) who discovers that her passion for completing jigsaw puzzles offers a way out of her humdrum life. Irrfan Khan plays a wealthy, eccentric inventor Robert who is intrigued by her unorthodox ways of puzzle-solving. He makes her his partner and the duo are content to spend long hours in each other’s company. His charisma, his sense of humour attracts her and they end up sleeping together. They kind of complete each other and their bond helps her come out of her shell. Though, in the end, she decides not to be with him when he calls her to Brussels for an international championship, choosing to go her own way. Irrfan got a lead role in a mainstream American film and his and Kelly Macdonald’s chemistry was much lauded by the critics.