Movie fans may not know who Irrfan Khan was but they've probably seen him more times than they realize.
The Indian actor racked up more than 150 credits before he died last year at age 53. Many of his Bollywood movies didn't make it to the U.S. but he starred in such Hollywood blockbusters as "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Jurassic World," playing not so much bad guys as bad-adjacent guys. His credits include a bunch of smaller dramas but he may be best known for playing a tormented patient who's dissatisfied with his arranged marriage on the third season of HBO's "In Treatment," the fourth season of which premieres Sunday.
His standout work on "In Treatment" showcases many things that made Khan such a special performer, including a gentle reserve that works in counterpoint to his expressive, soulful brown eyes. Khan, who struggled with several health issues, often played people who were in distress. That's what "Jurassic" director Colin Trevorrow remembered after Khan's death, saluting a man who "found beauty in the world around him, even in pain. In our last correspondence, he asked me to remember 'the wonderful aspects of our existence' in the darkest of days."
Another of Khan's directors, Danny Boyle, said the actor was crucial in getting "Slumdog Millionaire" made. Khan's role as a detective is small but Boyle said the film was picked up for distribution because of his magnetism, adding that he brought "dignity, grace, charm, intelligence and calmness" to a movie that would win the best picture Oscar in 2009.
That calmness is a key to Khan's appeal. Not a showy actor, he was inclined to withhold emotion rather than express it, urging audiences to meet him halfway in the creation of his characters. On "In Treatment," we long for him to reveal himself to his therapist, since it's the only way he can get help. In the towering "The Warrior" (which is on DVD but does not seem to be streaming), we watch his eyes to see if his merciless killer will realize the wrongness of what he does.
Even in the boisterous comedy "Qarib Qarib Single," in which he plays a hippie poet, the contrast between his goofy grin and haunted eyes makes us suspect that his character is not what he seems. Which he isn't. (Although it's silly, it's worth finding on Netflix for the chance to see Khan's lighter side.)
Lost love, or the possibility of losing love, was a Khan specialty, as this list of his best work indicates.
If you see just one Khan movie, this heartfelt romance should be it. The drama plays out in letters between a crabby widower and a lonely housewife, which they send via his lunchbox. Part of the fun is the depiction of Mumbai's elaborate lunch delivery system, which employs bicycles, trains and buses. A glitch leads to a woman's lunch reaching not her husband but Khan, who displays little emotion in his humdrum job but pours all of his longing into notes that eventually lead to love.
The comedy/drama is similar to "The Lunchbox," in that Khan again plays a mysterious loner, but he turns on his seductive charm as a guy who places a classified ad, looking for someone to help him win jigsaw puzzle contests. When another lonely housewife answers (played by criminally underrated Kelly Macdonald), the two become friends and possibly more. They're guided by Khan's character's motto, "When you complete a puzzle you know you have made all the right choices."
Mira Nair's lovely film was adapted from a multigenerational novel by Jhumpa Lahiri but the role of Ashoke seems like it was written specifically for Khan. He moves from India to the U.S. He's a quiet man who conveys a lot by observing the other characters. He must believably age from youth to his 50s. His specter needs to hang over the movie even when he's absent from it. And with his eyes filling with tears that speak to unspoken pain, he tells his son about the day he was born, saying, "Every day since then has been a gift."
It's one of those movies with a lot of elements that don't come together until the very end. Almost like a narrator, Khan's character — a cop who is questioning Dev Patel's Jamal — helps join the pieces. We don't know much about the cop but Khan's cool intensity makes him a fascinating part of the puzzle.
It's a shame a performance as delicious as Khan's was wasted on this not-great entry in the Dan Brown movie series that started with "The Da Vinci Code." Khan plays one of those maybe-a-bad-guys and is aware that everything around him is fairly cartoonish. He gives an outsized performance, complete with perverse line readings, expository dialogue he treats like a joke and a memorable scene where he stabs a goon in the neck and politely apologizes to Tom Hanks with a classy British accent, "Terribly sorry."
The actor somehow makes his character's ruthlessness feel elegant in the drama about the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. He plays a Pakistani who's part of the group of people Pearl's widow, Mariane (Angelina Jolie), recruited while searching for her husband. It's not always clear if Khan's character is helping or hurting Mariane's efforts because he plays it so close to the vest.
Another puzzlebox movie, it perfectly suits Khan's ability to convey two competing impulses at once. The film seems to tell one story but it's really telling another. That may be why Khan said his part, the adult version of the title character, was his most difficult — and why director Ang Lee (who won an Oscar) chose the actor who had a proven ability to straddle two worlds.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367