Looking back on Irrfan Khan’s performance in The Lunchbox, a role that celebrated the magnetic actor's strengths
The Lunchbox played to Irrfan Khan’s strengths as a performer who spoke primarily with his eyes.
Irrfan Khan was one of Indian cinema’s most magnetic actors. He passed away on Wednesday, at the age of 53.
With over eighty film appearances, ranging from Bollywood studio comedies to international arthouse fare, Khan was someone who could do it all. One performance in particular, however, has lingered with me off late, not only in the wake of his death, but in recent weeks and months, as we find ourselves dealing with widespread change and social isolation: his role as Saajan Fernandes in The Lunchbox.
Ritesh Batra’s epistolary drama hit Indian screens in 2013, and was a regular feature of the global festival circuit (everything from Toronto to Cannes) before its eventual BAFTA nomination. An understated tale of grappling with nostalgia as the world moves ever forward, The Lunchbox played to Khan’s strengths as a performer who spoke primarily with his eyes.
The film tells the story of two strangers — Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young mother stuck in a loveless marriage, and the lonely widower Saajan — who begin exchanging letters when Ila’s dabba, meant for her husband, is accidentally delivered to Saajan’s workplace. As Saajan, Khan speaks fondly of the world he remembers. His hometown, Mumbai, is in a rapid state of westernisation and change. His wife’s favourite songs and films have slipped from collective memory, and are relegated to channels and radio stations playing classics of yesteryear. Even at his job as an accountant, he’s readying for retirement by training his own replacement, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).
Saajan tells Ila about all this through letters, though we, the audience, experience it as wistful voiceover, as Khan stares out from his balcony, reflecting on a distant past he holds so dear that he can almost reach out and touch it. However, Saajan’s present is almost nonexistent. His future is hidden by a fog of uncertainty. He has no idea how to exist in the now, except by preparing for obsolescence.
It’s frustrating, and he occasionally takes it out on the over-eager Shaikh; Khan’s reserved annoyance paints a picture of a man wrestling with his own prickliness, lest he blow a gasket. It’s a performance that feels all too familiar after six frustrating weeks on lockdown. But even without the current circumstances, it remains a poignant reflection of unspoken everyday hurdles, told by an actor silently reflecting on his surroundings — as if to ask: how do you let go of the past when it’s all you know? When you feel like the world has no place for you?
Admittedly, when I first saw The Lunchbox seven years ago, I was in a much more cynical place, so I filtered its ending through the lens of my own (in)experience. Saajan, after spending the film contemplating a retirement alone in Nashik, boards a train, and Khan silently reflects on his pen pal romance with Ila (they narrowly miss meeting each other in person). It felt, to my 21-year-old self, like Saajan had given up on finding her, and had left behind any possibility of happiness. After all, Khan was hardly the kind of actor to wear his emotions on his sleeve.
Watching the film back more recently revealed layers to Khan’s performance which I’d previously missed. As Saajan asks the local dabbawalas about Ila’s whereabouts, his face remains in its usual resting scowl — that’s just who he is; he barely lets people in — but Khan’s posture tells a different story. He shuffles anxiously between deliverymen, perhaps even excitedly. The scene unfolds from afar, and its sound is drowned out by voiceover from Ila, but a closer look at Khan reveals Saajan speaking quickly and with a hint of desperation, a far cry from his otherwise languid demeanour.
A still snapshot of Saajan’s face in this moment would be indistinguishable from one of Saajan when the film begins. But throughout The Lunchbox, Khan tells Saajan’s story through movement and familiar nuance, as if creating an emotional labyrinth for us to follow him through. Does Saajan find Ila in the end? I don’t know. The film cuts to black before telling us. I once read its ending as a firm “No” — but I was asking the wrong questions.
Saajan and Ila meeting has never been important; the final few shots of the film reveal a much more compelling answer. As Saajan sits among chanting and singing dabbawalas, dressed in a suit, like he doesn’t belong — he never seems to belong, and it’s more energy than he’s used to — his discomforted reserve is betrayed, once more, by Khan’s excitable poise. He never lets the character’s mask slip, but he tells us exactly what lies beneath it.
His hands are clasped anxiously, like he’s keeping a lid on a newfound zest for life. His eyes dart around the train compartment, fixating on nothing in particular. Perhaps he’s daydreaming. Perhaps about Ila. And when Saajan finally turns to look out the window, you can almost catch a glimpse of contentment. Like there’s finally something waiting for him at his destination.
Man, what a storyteller.
The Lunchbox is available on Netflix India.
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