I sat down, intending to write about one of my all-time favourite actors, whose work has exhilarated and amazed me all these years. My thoughts traverse through all the characters he played, all the worlds he brought to us so brilliantly and intricately. From the restrained Ashoke Ganguli to the devious and doomed Miyaan Maqbool, the versatility and depth in his performance remains unmatched to this day. Yet, there is one similar thread that connects his many exquisite performances for me – their rich inner world. They seem to be talking, walking and conducting themselves from the depths of their being, probably spilling from the actor himself. Even his comic outings in Life in a Metro and Hindi Medium shine with this strange spirituality. They seem a bit otherworldly, even eccentric, yet closely resemble people you have crossed paths with in life. One such character that radiate with this delicate humanity is the reticent Saajan Fernandes from The Lunchbox. A middle-aged fussy accountant would possibly be the last person you would imagine as a romantic lead. But trust Irrfan to make it an affair to remember.
We first meet Saajan when he's introduced to the affable, energetic Shaikh, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Saajan is tasked with training Shaikh for the job as his replacement. The awkward interaction between the two characters emphasises the isolation that Saajan is so used to at this point. He is mildly irritated with the chatty, happy-go-lucky Shaikh disturbing him from his usual routine-bound activities. Irrfan plays him with a visceral nuance, you almost feel as if you have seen, probably met him in your own life. There's even a scene where he scolds a group of kids asking for their ball which landed on his balcony (a childhood flashback there). He is who he is – a somewhat cantankerous widower who goes about life minding his own business. There's nothing special, out of ordinary about him. He possesses a heavy, contemplative gaze that reflects his age, showing all the years he has slogged off in the office halls, surrounded with piles of documents and indifferent colleagues.
This changes when, because of a sweet (or should I say spicy) twist of fate, he ends up with the lunchbox sent by Ila, a housewife. The moment he tastes the food, there's a sparkle in his eyes. There's something special about the lunch this day, and Irrfan conveys this without conversing. The dabbawalla is pleasantly surprised when Saajan compliments the food, showing that this doesn't happen very often.
As the story unravels, we witness an unlikely friendship develop between Saajan and Ila. The hunger for flavours and savouries is juxtaposed with the emotional starvation of being seen, loved, and accepted. There are several montages depicting Saajan's after-office hours – taking a metro, smoking, watching T.V. Irrfan's visceral performance effectively conveys the depth of his loneliness. We, as an audience begin to observe a distinctly vulnerable side to Saajan , as he avidly waits for Ila's letters, and reads them with a glint in his eyes. They share their thoughts on food, life, their respective spouses, life in a metro (pun not intended) and a distinct loneliness that permeates their life. Mundane observations take deeper meaning, and the safe space that these two provide each other despite being strangers becomes an intriguing vehicle to understand the human need to connect and belong. Saajan reminisces about the old TV shows his wife used to watch and his childhood memory of the Mumbai he used to know. We witness an imaginative, romantic side to Saajan, which was probably lost to the banal humdrum of life. In a scene, he writes to Ila, "I think we forget things if we have no one to tell them to".
The Lunchbox also boasts of an exquisite scene between Nawaz and Irrfan, where Shaikh invites Saajan to be his 'guardian' at his wedding. Their relationship has a distinct power hierarchy, and they do not share the intimacy of a close friendship. Shaikh opens up about his ordeals as an orphan, who has fallen in love with a woman above his social standing, we witness a morose side to the usually upbeat character. Saajan quietly listens without interrupting him, as he registers his pain. Irrfan's brilliance shines in the silences as much as it does in words. It is so true to life, so realistically portrayed, as if you are a bystander to a normal, everyday conversation. Yet, it is seeped with the richness of life. This quality stands out in his entire filmography, and proves to be his signature.
Irrfan's legacy is so huge and multi-layered that it is impossible to contain it with words. His performances have left an indelible impact on cinema that will have its viewers entranced for years to come. Stella Adler once said, "The greatest talent of an actor lies in their choices". Irrfan's choices have enriched the medium and the art, and we as an audience are forever grateful to have witnessed this gift.