The charismatic actor Irrfan Khan, who has died aged 53 from a colon infection following diagnosis of a neuroendocrine tumour, had a successful career in British and US cinema while also headlining blockbusters in his native India. His contrasting roles in two recent Oscar-winners alone hinted at his range: in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), he was the incredulous police inspector putting the screws on the plucky young hero (Dev Patel), while in Ang Lee’s film of Yann Martel’s Booker-winning fable Life of Pi (2012) he was a more benevolent presence as the narrator spinning the tall tale of a tiger and a child lost at sea.
He was also in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and Jurassic World (2015), in which he was the billionaire owner of a dinosaur park. Particularly rewarding for him was the experience of making Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart (2007), starring Angelina Jolie as the widow of the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. “I feel that as an actor if I could do these kinds of stories that can possibly change things somewhere, then I’m doing my job. I’m giving back something to the world because it cannot be one way – I cannot keep consuming and doing things just for entertainment.”
Khan was one of a handful of Indian actors to be known far beyond Hindi cinema, or Bollywood as he preferred not to call it. “That industry has its own technique, its own way of making films that has nothing to do with Hollywood,” he told this newspaper in 2013. “So why did they lose their identity by calling it Bollywood?” He was a star there regardless, with triumphs including Rog (2005), based on the 1944 film noir Laura (Khan took the Dana Andrews role of the upright police inspector investigating the title character’s murder), and the factually based Paan Singh Tomar (2012), in which he played a real-life former soldier and athletics champion who becomes a violent Chambal valley rebel following a catastrophic land dispute. Other Hindi highlights include a brace of intelligent Shakespeare adaptations: Maqbool (2003), where he was convincingly tormented as the Macbeth-inspired protagonist, and Haider (2014), which relocated Hamlet to latter-day Kashmir.
He got his first film role as a letter-writer in Salaam Bombay! (1988), Mira Nair’s international hit about Indian streetchildren. She continued to be one of his biggest supporters, casting him as an immigrant raising his son in the US in The Namesake (2006) and in her six-minute segment of the portmanteau film New York, I Love You (2008) in which he was a Jain diamond dealer who experiences a fleeting connection with a Hasidic bride (Natalie Portman).
It was the British director Asif Kapadia who provided the richest showcase for Khan’s talents by casting him as the brooding lead in his mythical adventure The Warrior (2001). “As soon as we met, I knew we had our guy,” he said. “He had a real presence and I knew he could carry the film. He was known for TV roles, but didn’t have the looks for commercial cinema. All the better for us, as there was no way we could’ve afforded him if he were a huge star.” That widely acclaimed picture arrived just as Khan was about to quit acting following years of unfulfilling television work. It ushered in the most successful phase of his career and established his credibility as a leading man, a quality exploited thereafter in countless Indian movies including, most poignantly, The Lunchbox (2014), a wry romantic comedy in which he was a widowed accountant who receives a love note intended for another man. Khan was resigned, though, to the fact that such roles were unlikely to arise in the US, where he was regarded as a sturdy character actor. “Hollywood isn’t ready for an Indian leading man,” he said.
He was born in Tonk, a village in Jaipur, the son of Yaseen Khan, a game hunter who also owned a tyre shop, and his wife, Saeeda Begum, who came from the royal Tonk Hakim family; Khan later dropped his first given name, Sahabzada, declaring himself embarrassed by the prestigious connection, and added an extra “r” to Irfan, purely for phonetic reasons. He harboured aspirations to be a cricketer but turned eventually to acting, already a passion of his since his mid-teens. “My parents didn’t really approve, they wanted me to do something like become a teacher or doctor, what the middle classes consider ‘honourable’. I said to them that I would become a drama teacher but I knew I wouldn’t do that.” He began training as an actor at the National School of Drama in Delhi in 1984. “If I didn’t get in I would have gone mad. Because for me the life I was leading was finished, it was so boring, so repetitive … I wanted to do something where I would connect.” It was there also that he met the screenwriter Sutapa Sikdar, whom he married in 1995.
Later credits included the third season of In Treatment (2010), where he was one of the patients of the therapist played by Gabriel Byrne, and the thriller Inferno (2016) with Tom Hanks. Khan was charm personified in Puzzle (2018), a gentle story of jigsaw enthusiasts, in which he got to fall for his co-star Kelly Macdonald and to deliver the delicious question: “How long have you been puzzling?” One of his last Bollywood hits was Hindi Medium (2017), in which he played a father trying to get his daughter accepted into an English-speaking school; it was successful enough to spawn a sequel, Angrezi Medium (2020), which became Khan’s final film.
He is survived by Sikdar and their sons, Babil and Ayan.
• Irrfan Khan (Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan), actor, born 7 January 1967; died 29 April 2020