I remember the moment I fell in love with Irrfan sahab. I was watching Ritesh Batra‘s The Lunchbox. It wasn’t in a theatre. It was in my room, on my computer. When you come from a middle-class family, going to a movie theatre is a luxury, and you have to find other, more ‘creative’ ways to entertain your passion. I had just become a movie buff and was yet to watch films that would make me the person I am. I vividly remember I only picked The Lunchbox because of all the Oscar buzz around it. For a moment it seemed like we had done it. We were gonna win an Oscar. But little did we know that the film’s fate was much bigger than merely winning an international award.
So the stage was set, the lights went off and the curtains were lifted. Oblivious and ignorant, I played the film. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? I’d end up disappointed. There was nothing at stake. I didn’t know of Irrfan Khan’s magic and Ritesh Batra was just another America-returned filmmaker. And so the film began, ready to take on a wide-eyed, ignorant kid. Within the first five minutes, the film had defeated my first line of defence and had stepped into the castle of my heart.
The opening shots of dabbawalas cycling through the streets of Mumbai in heavy rain to deliver thousands of lunchboxes, made me travel to the city of dreams from my damp room. One of the lunchboxes finally ends up on the table of Saajan Fernandes, a government official about to retire. Irrfan was finally here. But the magic was yet to be felt. His big, beautiful eyes were still hidden behind a veil and I was safe, but not for long. Something was coming and I could sense it. The movie moved ahead slowly, cautious of my expectations yet never afraid of them. Then finally it arrived. The scene that gave a final blow to all my defences and made me kneel in front of it, accepting defeat.
After a long, and seemingly ceaseless, day of work, Saajan comes back home only to find a bunch of kids standing outside his house. They have accidentally kicked their ball inside his house and want it back. He gives them their ball only after giving them an earful about not playing near his house. His brittleness towards every other being is a mystery yet to be unfolded. The answers will come but only at due time. Saajan then goes into his house. Like himself, his house has also become old and tired, and can crumble any moment without warning. There’s no one at his house except solitude and quiet loneliness. We see him next on his balcony, quietly smoking and looking at the house in front of him. Through an open window, he can see a family enjoying their meal. He tries to look away but he can’t. The pain is too much to conceal. There’s a neat close-up of Saajan’s face and the film came alive, knocking my weak defences out of the castle and hoisting the flag of its win.
The big, bulging eyes of Irrfan had taken over the screen and left me hypnotised. My stone-cold heart had melted into a bowl of fascination and endearment. It was as if a magician had revealed his most precious trick to me. The character’s loneliness had finally been announced and Irrfan had become one with Saajan. There were no dialogues and yet the stillness of the scene was deafening. I was glued to my seat, rooting for this man who, at this point, I knew nothing about. But the scene doesn’t end here even though it had long served its purpose. It lingers on and we see him unpacking the cold Chinese food that he must have bought from a cheap Chinese restaurant. Eating for him is just a ritual so he doesn’t even heat the food. He reads while eating the cold tasteless food, never once looking at it. Irrfan makes each bite looks tiring. The whole act is so mechanical that it leaves a sad taste in our mouths and a void in our hearts. The reason for his bitterness has finally been stamped and parcelled to us. He is lonely and has been for ages.
The next one-and-a-half hours sailed smoothly, without any rough edges, delving deep into Saajan’s dilemma and his need for a companion. The film, scene after scene, had taken over all my senses and left me feeling things I had only seen in movies. As the credits started rolling, I knew I had witnessed something extraordinary. Something that can’t be talked about, only felt. Ritesh Batra had done the impossible. He had made a film so flawless, so real, so endearing, yet so sad, that it took me several viewings to peel each layer of the film.
On the surface, the film is about two lonely strangers finding solace in each other’s words in a big city. But like a well-shaped onion, the film has multiple layers and it unpacks each of them masterfully. It shows what love and compassion can do to a rotten soul and how we are all connected through shared suffering and fluttering moments of happiness. There are many things to write home about the film but Irrfan’s performance takes the cake for me. It’s not only my favourite performance of his, it’s also his most mature and challenging one.
Irrfan doesn’t get many dialogues in the film and whatever little he speaks, he says it so nonchalantly, that it seems as if he is not saying written lines, rather coming up with stuff at the moment. He lets his eyes and body do the rest of the talking. Throughout the film, Irrfan’s body is restrained. He tries to take up as little space as he can to hide under the blanket of invisibility. When he stands, his shoulders stoop downwards, mimicking the forever frown on his face. He has tamed his face to be blank so that his feelings don’t come out in the open.
This comes out beautifully in a scene where Saajan is saying goodbye to his only friend, Shaikh. Saajan has taken early retirement and will be going to Bhutan to spend the rest of his life. Both men know that it’s the last time they are seeing each other. Shaikh lets his feelings out and says how empty he’ll feel without him. Saajan in response lets out a smile and gets into the taxi. He tells the taxi driver to wait for a second and then peeks out from the window to take a last look at Shaikh. This petite yet endearing gesture of Saajan is the most expressive he has ever been. The quiet intimacy of this scene provides a perfect closure to their friendship. No words are exchanged, no promises are made, and yet there’s nothing left to be said. Irrfan’s eyes don’t leave anything unsaid. They work perfectly as a magnifying glass to read between the pauses that the film takes frequently.
The film has many scenes where the camera lingers on Irrfan’s face and doesn’t say anything explicitly. It trusts the eyes of Irrfan and knows it’ll be enough. People will get it. I had never seen a performance of this calibre before and won’t be seeing that many in the future either. It was a sight of pure magic and I was in love; in love with this man who spoke more with his eyes and pauses, rather than words.
The Lunchbox is one of the greatest films of the past decade and it wouldn’t have become what it is without Irrfan; Irrfan, who not only shone bright but also elevated the performance of his co-actors. Such was his magic. Irrfan Khan was a huge star and played many strong, beautiful and layered characters with utmost perfection, but Saajan Fernandes remains to date his most reflective, sensitive and intimate performance.
Losing him last year was a huge personal tragedy for the whole nation. Things went blank for a while and people didn’t know what to feel. He has given us so much in each of his performances that it’ll take a whole decade to decipher each of his eye movements and pauses. But with time, wounds have started to heal, not because we have decided to move on, but because Irrfan remains with us, in our films, and in our hearts. I mean, how can we forget the smile and warmth of a man who taught us how to dream? He left us only to become a star that shines the brightest in the darkest of nights.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.