* I can seldom enjoy fried bitter gourds stuffed with spices. It will land me with weeks of giddiness and proton pump inhibitors. But on the actor’s birthday — January 7 — I am going to cook some and commemorate the tactility of Irrfan’s eyes and smile on screen
* In Angrezi Medium, he ran a sweet shop. In Qarib Qarib Singlle, he was a food connoisseur who tried to persuade a chef to serve hot pakodas with hot tea instead of cold cucumber sandwiches
* Erratic eating or fast-forward comical eating has been used in Bollywood films in order to portray heightened emotions — heartbreak being one of them. But Irrfan’s eating style on screen was far from that
We had been warned. Don’t watch Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox if you are hungry, a critic had said. But tempted by Michael Simmonds’s cinematography, I stared at the screen, stomach rumbling.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) was tenderly cooking bharwa karela or stuffed bitter gourds among other tiffin delights. If you follow the recipe, you know that there’s an eventual thread that needs to be tied carefully to the gourd, to hold the stuffing together. And if your flame is not controlled, the lower layer may burn. That was the running metaphor in Batra’s 2013 film — so rich and touching that the slow burning persisted long after the film was over.
The vegetable dish reached Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) by mistake. Saajan, a lonely widower about to retire as an accountant, found a note in his lunch box the next day. Ila had realised her mistake, and sent him an apology. And it came packed with a sumptuous lunch. Saajan replied: “The food was salty”.
I can seldom enjoy fried bitter gourds stuffed with spices. It will land me with weeks of giddiness and proton pump inhibitors. But on the actor’s birthday — January 7 — I am going to cook some and commemorate the tactility of Irrfan’s eyes and smile on screen.
Last year, when he breathed his last, I was overwhelmed by these food memories. I remembered that appetising scene in the film when Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the pesky yet enduring young man set to replace him at work, was seen eating an ice cream and asked Irrfan to join his wedding as a ‘guardian’. Most of these eating scenes felt like warm quilts and were reminiscent of what Pulp Fiction’s Mia Wallace said while having a milkshake: “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody really special”.
Food cropped up as a flavourful leitmotif in Irrfan’s films. In Angrezi Medium, he ran a sweet shop. In Qarib Qarib Singlle, he was a food connoisseur who tried to persuade a chef to serve hot pakodas with hot tea instead of cold cucumber sandwiches. It is a set menu, the chef said. “Nothing is ever set in life,” Irrfan replied.
What he felt, as Saajan, while looking across his neighbours at their dinner table (and then quietly eating alone) struck a deep chord within us. It was relatable, unlike the revenge binge-eating as a method of overcoming pain often shown on American pop-sitcoms.
I wonder if we’d felt similarly when, for instance, Aishwarya Rai was biting into whole hot chillies in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), unable to bear heartache. Or say when characters such as Sweetu aka Jaspreet Kapoor from Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) thought of food to deal with the uncertainty of romance. Or the frequent throwing of porcelain plates and banging the dinner table when upset and angry.
Irrfan’s on screen ‘slow eating’ was not the trendy nutritional hack which celebrities are promoting over Instagram these days either. Rather it was to eat by leaving out ‘spaces’ — slowly. These spaces indicated a matured artistry, as did his speaking eyes.
Chew slowly, like a cow, Irrfan told Amitabh Bachchan in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku (2015). They were at the dining table when Irrfan said he connected “everything to the stomach”. To this, Bachchan replied, “Our motion is tied to our emotion”. Irrfan’s eyes did the speaking long before he actually spoke up in a heated debate on eating styles and constipation.
Then there was Irrfan’s smile that worked as a full sentence. Last seen in the 2020 film Angrezi Medium, that smile cropped up in some of the most heartbreaking moments. He had carried it to a promotion event of Qarib Qarib Singlle, three years ago, too. When asked what the extra “L” (in the word Singlle) signified, his words had the gathering smiling as well.
The vegetarian way of looking at ‘L’, he said, would imply love or latte and luck. By the time he got to the non-vegetarian part — the double-L — I was thinking of the Assamese phrase used interchangeably for heartburn and heartbreak — buku jola pura korise. It means there’s a biting discomfort in my chest — something I feel now, as I write this.
As I eat my fried bitter gourds, I will relish how slowness, too, is beautiful and can help us endure pain, heartbreak and heartburn.
The loved ones always leave, the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali had said in I dream I am at the ghat of the only world. If he were around, I’d have told him the loved one doesn’t always leave, the loved one also burns.
Rini Barman is an independent writer and researcher based in Assam