Celebrating the One-In-A-Million Performance in ‘The Lunchbox’ – A Tribute to the Late, Great Irrfan Khan
On 29 April 2020, the world lost one of its most nuanced actors, Irrfan Khan. Succumbing to his ailing health, the actor passed at 53 in Mumbai. To the average movie-goer, Irrfan is best known for his work on Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire, both with a combined 12 Academy Award wins between them.
He had also worked on numerous other English films as a character actor including Jurassic World, The Amazing Spider Man and The Darjeeling Limited. Word has it that director Wes Anderson specifically wrote a part for him in The Darjeeling Limited because of his desire to work with Irrfan.
However, long before his initiation into Hollywood, Irrfan was already a well-recognised and respected face in Bollywood, making his acting debut in 1988 with the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay!. While Irrfan never attained commercial hero success (some may call that a blessing), he became the go-to actor for directors looking to make message-driven art films.
Irrfan was always in demand for his work due to the performance he brings each time. He was not afraid to take chances and commit to more off-beat roles, making him a favourite for directors who wanted to delve into more experimental characterisations. While Irfaan was rarely seen shaking a leg in commercial mainstream hits, he was always seen giving expert performances, without letting the genre of a film limit him.
Irrfan’s biggest Bollywood hit to date is Hindi Medium, which follows the story of a couple who struggles to get their child admitted into an English medium school. The film did very well at the box office and saw Irrfan sweeping most major domestic awards for Best Actor. Many laud Hindi Medium as Irrfan’s best work yet – after The Lunchbox, that is.
“Sometimes it takes the wrong train to reach the right destination.”
Let me start off by saying that this is not a review of The Lunchbox – this is a celebration of what I find to be Irrfan Khan’s best movie and most memorable performance of all. The Lunchbox follows the story of Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) and Ila (Nimrat Kaur). Fernandes is a widow who is just about to retire from his nine to five government job that he has had for over 35 years while Ila is a devoted homemaker who is neglected by her husband.
What could possibly connect the two lonely souls, each in a different corner of bustling Mumbai? A literal one-in-a-million mistake.
One fateful day, the lunchbox meant for Ila’s husband is accidentally delivered to Fernandes. At this point I should elaborate about how unlikely that mistake is. Mumbai’s Dabbawalas (lunchbox men) have been operational since 1890 and have a 99.9% rate of accuracy, according to a Harvard Study. They deliver a quarter of a million lunches every single day, relying on their near perfect system amidst the Mumbai cacophony. The lunchboxes are picked up from the workers’ homes or their restaurant of choice and delivered to them at their workplaces before lunch. After lunch, the process is repeated in reverse.
Fernandes and Ila start exchanging small notes in the lunchbox as Ila deliberately continues to have it wrongfully delivered to him. Soon, a quiet romance forms between the two as they share memories, opinions and their loneliness with each other, learning a lot about themselves in the process.
One of the most powerful aspects of the film is how Irrfan portrays Fernandes, under the direction of Ritesh Batra. For the first half of The Lunchbox, Irrfan plays Fernandes as a bitter grouch who has lost the zest for life. He doesn’t even crack a smile until about forty minutes into the film (Yes, I checked). With his scraggly beard, puffy eye bags and one-word grunts, very few actors are able to naturally show world-weariness like Irrfan.
As his relationship with Ila progresses, Fernandes is seen significantly brighter, as if he was learning how to live again. Irrfan now portrays Fernandes with a child-like curiosity about his surroundings, where he asks more questions and stops to notice the details in the mundane. Even his letters to Ila get cheekier. This transformation is one of the most heartwarming and well-executed parts of the film, owing its success to Irrfan.
The Lunchbox also has a very steady pace that is rather slow, but not in a bad way. It does not drag or drone on. It feels like a leisurely stroll rather than a mad sprint. This ideal pace gives Irrfan time and scope to make Fernandes’ transformation extremely organic and allows the audience to properly invest in his journey.
Opening his Heart to a Reluctant Friend
In the midst of a developing slow-burn romance, there is a friendship sub-plot between Fernandes and Sheikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) that is a nice addition to the film. Siddiqui plays Sheikh, an over-eager jack of all trades, looking to learn the ropes of accounting from Fernandes. Siddiqui is also a firecracker of talent and his moments on screen with Irrfan were extremely natural.
At first glance, it may seem like this friendship just exists to pad the plot and offer some laughs. However, upon some deeper reflection, it is apparent that Sheikh exists as a catalyst for Fernandes’ transformation. He is wide-eyed and eager to take in the whole Mumbai experience, with the hopefulness that Fernandes has neglected. Sheikh nags his way through to Fernandes and the two form a genuine friendship with the latter secretly learning from the former.
In their initial scenes together, Irrfan embodies hesitation and quiet contempt with dismissive glances and deep breaths. However, as their friendship progresses, he starts to smile a bit more and ask more questions, all while adjusting his body language to depict cautious openness, while welcoming this unexpected friendship.
Irrfan’s Thematic Performance
There are many themes explored throughout The Lunchbox, the most glaring being the recurring feelings of loneliness, albeit in different forms. For Fernandes, he is nursing his widower’s grief along with a disinterest in living, almost like an outsider in his own life. For Ila, she desperately seeks validation from her husband who is indifferent to her, almost like an outsider in her own marriage. This commonality draws the two unlikely souls together amidst their own internal turmoils.
Irrfan draws the audience in with his reclusive, anti-social and anti-sentimental depiction of Fernandes. His spaced expressions and detached demeanour convinces the audience of his reality and makes the exploration of the theme a large part of the movie.
Another key theme is that of fate. Fernandes takes a long while to be convinced that the food is being prepared for him. Irrfan portrays this through half actions laced with hesitation and caution. Even when he initially tastes the food, he only takes a tiny morsel to sample due to his suspicion that it was different. Additionally, his eyes always dart around the room and survey his surroundings before secretively opening the letters from Ila. It is only later in the film that Fernandes accepts fate’s hand in the series of events and Irrfan shows that shift with more relaxed and carefree gestures.
The film crescendos in a climax that is an ultimate cliffhanger. The immediate reaction to this is frustration because of how much the audience is already invested in the film and its characters. However, upon letting the ending (or lack thereof) simmer for a while, I got the sudden realisation that I am in charge and it could be whatever I wanted it to be, based on my personal experience of watching The Lunchbox.
Movies like The Lunchbox possess a realism and cultural specificity that makes it extremely relatable, regardless of your ethnicity. Irrfan Khan also had that magic in him that made it seem like every role was made specifically for him. That is, after you snap out of his hypnotic performance that makes you momentarily forget that he, in fact, is an actor playing a character.
Irrfan’s loss will reverberate throughout the industry for a very long time to come. I know I will miss him each time I spot a character that he could have played effortlessly. Nevertheless, he has left his legacy through the treasure trove of work he has given to the world. His contributions to the arts will live on forever.
Watch the trailer of The Lunchbox below.