Irrfan Khan’s demise came as a severe jolt earlier this year, leaving a void in the industry that will be difficult to fill. There has perhaps never been a Hindi film actor so unanimously regarded as the best of his generation. The 54-year-old actor was not just an acclaimed actor in Bollywood but had become a familiar face internationally as well. “I try to do films which leave a longer impact, which speak to you and which keep coming back to you after you’ve seen them. I prefer movies which have a longer relationship,” he told one interviewer.
He has left us with a variety of feature film performances that showcase his consistently brilliant abilities as an actor, effortlessly morphing into each new character with ease. From the scores of memorable moments he’s left us, here are fifteen of his best performances that give a sense of his journey and his versatility as an actor.
15. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Danny Boyle’s Academy Award-winning film on a slum boy who becomes a millionaire had the actor in a small role, where he played the police inspector who beats Dev Patel’s character, Jamal – believing him to be a cheat. He has to explain himself to the cop. Khan’s mixture of tough, no-nonsense yet jagged authority with a hint of gentleness makes him just right for the role, a diametric opposite to the dramatic and hollow host of the show played by Anil Kapoor.
Irrfan brought a heady mix of ruthlessness and perseverance to the role and shined in the limited screen time he was offered. Boyle described the performance as “beautiful to watch.” He also said: “Irrfan was a wonderful actor and a pivotal figure in the making of Slumdog Millionaire. It wasn’t a huge role; in fact, on paper, it was even less rewarding looking. But Irrfan saw the possibility of guiding our audience with his dignity, his grace, his charm, his intelligence, and his calmness through this crossword puzzle of an idea, of a film”.
14. Haider (2014)
An out-of-focus figure in the distance limps toward the screen as a wicked bass riff plays. In Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Hamlet, Irrfan played Roohdar, bringing the narrative essence of the film in his story of Haider’s father, of the days they spent together as ‘rooh’ and ‘sharir’ (soul and body), ‘daria’ and ‘pani’ (river and water), inseparable in anguish until the latter’s death by gunshot.
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Irrfan had a brief role in the film, appearing and disappearing without a trace, but the force which he brought to the screen and to the narrative of the film is unputdownable. His performance was nothing short of a gathering storm, bringing out the true essence of the motive ingrained in Haider- that of vengeance. As Roohdar himself so aptly puts it “Jhelum bhi main, Chinar bhi, Shia bhi main, Sunni bhi main, aur Pandit bhi” (I am Jhelum, I am Chinar, I am Shia, I am Sunni, and I am the Pandit.)
13. Madaari (2016)
Madaari, directed by Nishikant Kamat, was a story of a common man where Irrfan Khan, played by Nirmal Kumar, who loses his son in a tragedy caused by corruption and decides to seek justice by kidnapping the son of the country’s home minister (Tushar Dalvi). As a single parent avenging his son’s death, his nuanced performance was the main reason for watching the film. He soars even as the film fails in certain aspects. The subtleties he brings to his character make it impossible to look away even when too much else around him does not add up. He nails it without ever flailing into the realms of needless melodrama that the film lingers onto.
In one unforgettable sequence, he articulates the depth of his pain at the unfathomable loss of his son in a civic tragedy. There’s this desperately held-back tear one moment and a deafening sort of despair shared aloud with random strangers in which Irrfan truly shines. His sorrow is palpable and raw, like an open wound. When he cries, it’s so piercing that it almost makes you uncomfortable. And yet, he compels you to keep watching.
12. Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017)
Qarib Qarib Singlle, starring Irrfan and Parvathy as a made-for-each-other couple who meet through a Tinder-like dating website, had the late actor as Yogi, a wandering poet who is akin to mansplaining and manspreading all the time. He is a mature 40-year-old and unabashedly annoying. When you see him first, he is perspiring and sporting a garish red jacket. This is how we (and Jaya on her first date with Yogi) see him. Perfect rejection material, one would think, in the context of the film. But with time, he grows in front of our eyes to reveal that he is the good old-fashioned guy who pursues you with words and his life experiences. The kind of guy who thinks poetry isn’t for a Facebook status to get 1,000 likes but to make it to a book that a reader will savor.
In the hands of a lesser actor, Yogi would have become caricaturish and annoying, but Irrfan brings in ease and charm that never feels forced, far removed from the intense characters he has played on screen. As Yogi, he is charming and infectious, leaving an indelible impression.
11. Angrezi Medium (2020)
Angrezi Medium was the last film the late actor was part of; he had taken a break from work to undergo treatment for a neuroendocrine tumor and had even returned to complete the shooting of the film post-recovery. Angrezi Medium is genuinely funny in parts, but it is due in large measure to the lead actor’s ability to salvage scenes that barely pass muster.
Irrfan was pitch-perfect in his performance in the role of Champak Bansal, a sweet shop owner in Udaipur. He played a doting father to Radhika Madan’s Tarika, who was harboring dreams of flying off to London. In one particularly moving scene, Champak shares a few drinks with his cousin Gopi (Deepak Dobriyal) and childhood pal Gajju (Kiku Sharda). It makes his rendition of Amitabh Bachchan’s Amar Akbar Anthony and makes it completely his own. It’s a reminder of a ‘performance,’ but one that never feels like he’s acting. It’s in the eyes.
10. Talvar (2015)
“The story is important. It’s not about my performance, it’s not about Irrfan,” the actor had said about the Meghna Gulzar film based on the real-life story of the Arushi Talvar murder case. It is a completely physical performance, and Irrfan Khan gets it just right, bringing the physical presence of the character into a room full of chaos with the marked confidence of a man who knows his job.
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Irrfan plays Ashwin Kumar, the Joint Director of the fictional CDI (modeled, obviously, on the CBI), who’s suspended after his colleague leaks a video to their senior about him torturing a potential witness who could change the course of the case. In one scene, Irrfan gets into a fight with his investigating companion. Then he goes out aimlessly on the streets of Delhi before deciding to pay an unannounced visit to his ex-wife, played by Tabu. It is in this scene where he shows how the man who once felt loved and belonged is now on the edge of giving up and says, “Mat jaane do mujhe.” It is a line carrying the character’s soul, and Irrfan makes it piercingly moving.
9. 7 Khoon Maaf (2011)
“Ik baar to yun hoga, thoda sa sukoon hoga… na dil mein kasak hogi, na sar mein junoon hoga.”
In Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Susanna’s seven husbands, Irrfan played Waseeullah, an intense, brooding poet, and had many such poems to quote. Irrfan was a poet and a pervert. For the public, he was a gentle Kashmiri poet reciting beautifully penned words. In private, he is a brute and an animal who gets sexually excited by beating up his wife, Priyanka Chopra. Irrfan’s deep-set eyes and quiet intensity did perfect justice to one of the darkest characters he played on screen. He was terrifying and deeply unsettling in a supporting role that left its mark on a sea of multiple characters in the film.
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He said in an interview, “To reduce my character to a wife-beater would be to take away from his complexities. This is a man, a poet in a state of constant turmoil. He is forever seeking something; he knows not what. When he finds Priyanka’s character, he feels his search has ended. But he realizes that he has embarked on another journey after marriage. In his endeavor to find himself, he ends up doing things he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing.”
8. Hindi Medium (2017)
Irrfan Khan portrayed the role of a Chandni Chowk-based boutique owner, Raj Batra, in the movie, who goes to every extent to keep his wife and daughter happy. captures Raj Batra’s endearingly rustic spirit with such aplomb that you are one with him in his endeavor. It is a performance that builds up throughout the screen time that slowly grows on to become unforgettable.
The arcs of the character have various turns, from charming sari seller to masquerading as super-rich and promptly super poor, and Irrfan Khan manages the implausible through a staggering degree of contrivances in Hindi Medium, never for a second looking out of his breath. That he was so credible and responsive to the characters’ demands showed how brilliant an actor he truly was. For his performance, he was awarded the Filmfare for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
7. Haasil (2003)
It was during Dhulia’s debut that everyone in the Bollywood film industry saw the brilliance of Irrfan. Set against the backdrop of Allahabad University, the film tracks the budding romance between two students: theatre artist Aniruddh (Jimmy Sheirgill) and Niharika (Hrishitaa Bhatt), a strong-minded, popular girl on campus. They both get embroiled in a devious game of political manipulation when Niharika catches the fancy of ambitious student leader Rannvijay Singh (Irrfan). In more ways than one, this performance created a template for the Hindi film antagonist, at once mercurial, without clinging to the mainstream demands of a physicality required for it.
From the introduction scene itself, Irrfan infused Singh with a roguishness that was both frightening and entertaining and at points, pointedly disturbing. Irrfan portrayed these contradictions with relaxed body language and subtle tonal shifts that would soon be known as the actor’s signature style. He won his first Filmfare in the category of Best Villain for Haasil.
6. Qissa (2013)
Arguably one the toughest, most intense performance of his career came in Anup Singh’s Qissa, where Irrfan played Umber Singh, a father who brings up his daughter to be a boy. Emotionally scarred, Irrfan Khan infuses the character with profound desperation so that even when he commits to regain control of his destiny, he invariably throws himself and his family deeper into a psychological display of quagmire. Like most of his memorable performances, this one, too, rested on his peerless ability to emote just through his eyes without doing anything. Umber Singh’s actions were incomparable, but it is in his eyes that one had to look into to find the real troubled soul.
It is a character for which the actor has to evoke sympathy for an essentially reprehensible figure, and Irrfan does it with nuance and delicacy. Not only he has to justify his ‘brutal’ existence but also to generate sympathy for his deeds. He rises to the occasion and owns the film. Director Anup Singh shared an anecdote where early, during the shooting of Qissa, “[He] chanced upon him humming and singing softly. It was a strange song because he was improvising the rhythms and the tune with the film’s dialogue. I sat there listening to him and slowly understood what he was doing. By humming, singing the dialogue, he was finding its tone, its inflection, its melody.”
5. Piku (2015)
As Rana Chaudhary in Shoojit Sircar’s charming slice-of-life film, Irrfan gave a performance that slowly became the silent ingredient for the film’s favor. Piku starred Irrfan Khan in a somewhat unusual role – the romantic hero. He played an unsophisticated taxi owner who reluctantly drives Piku and her impossible father from New Delhi to Kolkata, falling in love with the somewhat capricious Piku on the way.
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There’s one understated sequence when Bhaskor (Bachchan) painstakingly questions Rana about his father’s demise. Rana says he had kept his father on a ventilator, and Bhaskor shockingly describes the immoral and painful procedure of ventilation leading to death. Irrfan doesn’t say a word, the horror palpably visible on his face. The audience is never given the knowledge of the relationship with his father, and yet we know, from this single scene, how Rana must have been as a doted son. It is a beautifully orchestrated and balanced performance, one that gets better with every revisit.
4. Maqbool (2003)
Vishal Bhardwaj somehow brought out the best in Irrfan. In Maqbool, his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, he cast Irrfan as the tragic hero. Irrfan would be the youngest NSD graduate in the cast, including other alumni—Naseer, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur, and Piyush Mishra. In fact, towards the beginning of the film, there is a scene where all these actors are sitting in Abbaji’s living room. Irrfan was the juniormost of all, but now his time had finally come. He sat among all the senior actors with the confidence of a veteran.
In one of the many unforgettable sequences in the film, at an outcrop overlooking the sea, Nimmi (Tabu) trains a revolver on Maqbool, her secret lover and right-hand man of the gang lord whose mistress she is. She won’t give it back unless he says Meri Jaan (my love); she fires into the air, scaring him. So he says the words, first under duress, then like he’s actually enjoying it. Irrfan’s changing expression in the scene is a masterclass in acting.
3. The Namesake (2006)
In Mira Nair’s The Namesake, Irrfan played Ashoke Ganguli, an Indian professor in the US. Irrfan brought gentleness and vulnerability to the role, which was simply heartbreaking. In one scene, he gives his college-bound son (Kal Penn), named for Gogol’s The Overcoat, a copy of the book for his birthday. He’s about to tell Gogol the story of how he got the name, but Pearl Jam is blaring, and the boy is distracted, impatient with his father. Irrfan’s silence before he gives up pats his son on the shoulder, and leaves are beautifully poised – a moment of connection that seems just about there but never there.
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Mastering a Bengali accent with absolute brilliance, Irrfan’s performance was a masterclass in physical restrain. “We all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat,” Ashoke tells his clueless, drugged-out teenage son, Gogol, “One day you will understand,” Nair recalled a memory during shooting one of the most beautiful scenes when Ashoke and Gogol are in a car. The father explains the significance of Nikolai Gogol to his son. “He did that scene very nicely, but I was looking at him as a puppy after that,” she says. “And he asked, ‘Kuch chahiye naa, tujhe (You need something else, right)?’ And I said, “Haan, halka sa ankh mein ansoon, magar neeche nahi ana chaiye (Yes, a slight tear in your eye, but it should not roll down your cheek).” And he said, ‘Theek hai, Mira (All right, Mira).’ I usually don’t talk to actors like this to program their tears, especially tears that don’t fall. And that’s the scene we have from the second take. That scene required fine-tuning. It looks effortless, but I am sure it wasn’t.”
2. Paan Singh Tomar (2012)
In Tigmanshu Dhulia’s sports drama turned biopic, Irrfan used his lopsided grin and his famously intense gaze to magnetic effect. Irrfan Khan’s portrayal of athlete-turned-bandit Paan Singh Tomar will always count among his most compelling performances, immortalizing a man who was just a footnote in Indian sports till then. For his performance, he was awarded the National Award for Best Actor.
Khan was mesmerizing in the film—an innocent, naive, charming athlete, a man with a clean heart, who later became an angry, menacing outlaw. “Beehad mein baaghi hote hain, dacoit milte hain Parliament mein” – the iconic dialogue rings every time one thinks of his absorbing performance. From innocence to experience, from youth to falling grace- this performance seems uneven at first glance, given how Irrfan Khan imbibes all of these traits singularly. Still, with a closer look, it is as superbly structured as the film. Just like the first half recreating how the young Bengal Engineers recruit grew into an international level athlete, and the second showing the irrevocable transformation of a soldier and sportsman into a bandit, Irrfan merges with the demands of the narrative and becomes Tomar. It is a marvelous performance not just because he looks right but because he makes it feels right- with moving simplicity and with the baffled rage of masculinity driven inexorably to violence.
1. The Lunchbox (2013)
In Ritesh Batra’s charming debut, Irrfan Khan played Saajan Fernandes, an old, stubborn widower who desires to be left alone. The film follows two parallel storylines of Irrfan’s Fernandes and Nimrat Kaur’s Ila, a lonely homemaker in a loveless marriage. Their lives intersect through Mumbai’s intricate and efficient system of dabbawalas, people who never make a mistake. Fernandes is lonely and yet longing, a character that is not striking, that wants to stay hidden. It is a character that unpeels its facets with time, and Irrfan plays him with rousing feelings. Notice the way he opens the Dabba; he smells it before opening it, knowing it is from her or watching her from afar as she waits in vain for him at the cafe. It all plays in his eyes- alert to every passing emotion with devastating truth in an exquisitely gentle, subtle performance.
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Khan tells Saajan’s story through movement and familiar nuance as if creating an emotional labyrinth for us to follow him through. He never lets the character’s mask slip, but he tells us exactly what lies beneath it. And in the end, when Saajan finally turns to look out the window, you can almost catch a glimpse of contentment. It is an absolute tour de force.
Nimrat Kaur recounted his presence by saying, “He was a perfect vessel as an actor where he would come and with him being the vehicle, the story goes forward, which is why it was an Irrfan khan performance. He got so much gravity and life even by being in a frame; he didn’t have to say anything, his eyes were… You learn so much just by watching him.” Revisiting this performance is probably the best way to pay a fitting tribute to the actor whose loss feels resolutely personal.