Actors, especially good actors, have this unique ability to draw you into their character’s life with just one word, a clever glance, a heartfelt speech. They also have the burden of encompassing a writer’s page(s) worth of emotion and monologues and a director’s entire vision. But the really good actors do that with an unassuming ease. And no actor, arguably, did this better than Irrfan Khan. 

Irrfan Khan was a magician who weaved miracles with his performances. He had the ability to slip into any and every character and make it his own, effectively blurring the lines between real and reel. Here’s a look at the roles he immortalized over his career, that we can never imagine anyone else playing with equal perfection: 

1. Haasil

Though Khan had been acing performances for a long time, Haasil was the first time that his stellar act won over critics and fans, alike. Khan, who played student political leader Ranvijay Singh, was facing the far more experience Ashutosh Rana – who is known for his evil characters. And yet, Khan stood his ground, imbuing the character with the right mixture of evil, greed, and yet making you feel for him. 

2. Maqbool

To date, Khan as Maqbool remains one of my most favourite characters. Because it brought together my two loves – classic English literature and Hindi cinema. And while Bhardwaj deserves complete credit for adapting a Shakespearean tragedy so perfectly, Khan as Maqbool is iconic. Emotions like guilt, ambition, and greed are never easy to depict, but Khan nailed it, and how. 

3. The Namesake

There is no shortage of Bollywood actors who went on to do English films, but few made the kind of impact that Irrfan did with his roles. Perhaps because the authenticity that he brought to his roles was rarely, if ever, matched by his peers. Playing a stoic Bengali father, The Namesake showcased a side of Irrfan that his previous ‘villainous’ roles had shielded from us – a side where we saw Khan showcase the power of restrained, nuanced performances. 

4. Life in a… Metro

Irrfan Khan truly left me surprised with his role in the film – an unexpected source of delight, and not because I was not aware of his comic timing (I am one of the few people to have watched, and frankly enjoyed, 7½ Phere). But in a film that often left you reeling with heartbreak, Irrfan and Konkona’s characters, and their love story, left you smiling.

5. Paan Singh Tomar

Though Bollywood has only gifted a handful of noteworthy biopics, Paan Singh Tomar is undoubtely one of the finest. And Khan, who essayed the titular role and won the National Award for his performace, was a treat to watch. He brought alive the crushing disappointment of a National level athlete forced to rebel against the system due to circumstances. The anguish he portrayed on screen, touched a chord with most of us – and not just because we’ve all been victims of a flawed system, one time or other. But because it’s impossible to see Khan in action, and not be moved. 

6. The Lunchbox

Saajan Fernandes is not your usual romantic hero. For one, he does not walk around, dancing in the rain. Nor does he deliver cheesy, romantic lines or even, undertake grand gestures to ‘prove his love’. And yet, he is the one character whose feelings for Ila are never in question. Because Khan showcased Ritesh Batra’s vision with a delicacy that left you whimsical and a little in love yourself. After all, there are few actors (and characters) who can make you fall in love with lost charm of letters and ghar ka dabba.

7. Hindi Medium

Irrfan played serious roles so well, it was easy to forget that he was just as brilliant with comic-timing. Hindi Medium, of course, was the perfect reminder of Khan’s ability to play diverse characters from varying genres. Hilarious, heartwarming, and relatable, Khan as Raj Batra remains one of my favourite on-screen fathers. 

8. Haider

Irrfan Khan’s filmography holds a lesson in how to leave maximum impact, in minimal screen time. Like he did when he played Roohdaar in Haider. While he graces the screen for barely two scenes, his emphatic dialogue delivery left an indelible impact on the audience – one that for a few moments, eclipsed even Tabu and Shahid’s powerful act. 

9. Piku

Once again redefining the idea of a romantic hero, Irrfan was prickly, playful, and damn near perfect as Rana in Piku. He was honest and shy, but where it counted, he stood up – even if it was for Piku, the customer his fleet of taxi drivers were least fond of. And similarly, while he may not be one to profess love from terraces, he was brave enough to admit his affection for Piku and perceptive enough to grasp the challenges that come with loving her. 

10. Qarib Qarib Singlle

There are many performances by Irrfan that left me awe-struck. But the one role that left me thoroughly charmed was Yogi. Much like Jaya, I found myself falling for Yogi’s antics. Irrfan had a cynic like me believing in love, second chances, and small joys that make life interesting. How many actors, or characters, can we say that about? Yogi and Jaya’s romance was one for the oddballs. And I loved every bit of it. 

A special mention to this scene (and this role) from Life of Pi, that has become a life lesson for so many of us. 

For fans like me, no matter how many roles Irrfan would have done, it would have felt less. It still feels less. But what he gifted through these roles is etched in our memories, to be revisited and revived whenever the heart desires.