Irrfan Khan is India’s Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor of rare poetic feeling and remarkable range. In both Hindi and English-language productions, he projects an uncommon emotional honesty. He speaks both languages in “The Lunchbox,” a charming romance that casts the 47-year-old as a grouchy duffer on the verge of retirement.
The film is also his first outing as a producer. He put his financial leverage behind the $1.6 million project because of “the emotion of the story. It is so simple. So rare. So haunting.”
Born in Jaipur, he was introduced to stories through the radio. “From early childhood we used to search the radio for radio plays. They used to haunt me and my sister. We used to wait through the day for a drama on such and such station. In the night that was the only occupation we had.”
Khan found the same “strange, pure emotion” in writer/director Ritesh Batra’s “Lunchbox” screenplay. The film is also structured like a radio play. Khan’s character falls in love with a neglected housewife through their correspondence. The characters “speak” to each other only through voiceovers recounting what they have written.
Khan expects that the film’s universal themes will give it an international appeal not generally accorded to Indian productions. “We are complacent, happily catering to our own audience, which is so huge world-over. When a film is traveling abroad it is basically addressing the Indians” residing elsewhere. “It’s not really striking a universal language.”
Unlike Western films about India such as “Slumdog Millionaire” (in which he co-starred as a brutal police interrogator), “The Lunchbox” was made by a Western-educated filmmaker with a Western production team, “but it has an Indian heart,” Khan said.
“The other exception is ‘Life of Pi,’ but that’s something very special with [director] Ang Lee. Wherever he goes, whatever culture he explores, he has some gift and connects with it.” Khan played “Pi’s” title character as an adult, a performance that took the fantastic story into real areas of midlife melancholy.
Playing an elderly functionary near the end of his career in “The Lunchbox” “was a botheration,” Khan said. “In India, there aren’t many central characters that are mature. If you play an elderly part, they try to bracket you, saying, ‘Well, you’ve grown older.’ I know if the film becomes a huge hit in India, I’ll be fighting a battle to tell them otherwise.”