If you follow this blog and twitter feed of our regular contributors, you know that we have been plugging, writing and tweeting about Ritesh Batra’s debut feature ‘The Lunchbox’ for a long, long time. The film is finally releasing this friday. Thanks to UTV and Karan Johar who came on board and made it happen.
And Dear UTV, for Ship Of Theseus, The Lunchbox and Shahid, sau khoon maaf (or Chennai Express maaf) this year from our side. Do continue the good work, or at least just the balancing act will do.
Over to Fatema Kagalwala who tells you why ‘The Lunchbox’ is a must watch and is easily one of the best films of the year.
Cinema is a big lie. Loneliness isn’t as poetic as it pretends to be on celluloid. And nostalgia is a double-edged sword, its pain bitter-sweet but pain after all. Not many have the courage to show it as it is and we keep buying those lies, keeping the pretence going. Good things happen to good people in films but not real life. But who are we to conclude that? Definitely, not Ritesh Batra. Because, he is not pretending, nor bull-shitting us. He is simply throwing two situations, two people very real and painfully so, together and asking ‘what if’? And also, ‘what now’? And that is beautiful.
There is loneliness everywhere in the film. In every frame, every character. Accompanied by that unshakeably loyal bitch of a companion – longing. And along with it disillusionment, resignation and valiant attempts to overcome. In all the three central characters of the film played by Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur and Nawazuddin Siddique.
I don’t know how to write a recco post without divulging too much. So free-wheeling it will be. In a Q and A, Ritesh Batra said there is a lot of nostalgia in every character, yearning for a time long past. And nostalgia is the step-child of loneliness, undesired yet cannot be shaken of. Always around to remind you the good times have long gone. But they needn’t stay gone. And as humans we will always wish for better times, strive for better times. And so do these three characters. Just like Georges in Amour. Or Salma of Lemon Tree.
How do you write about a film that you just liked and liked? No, there is nothing to dislike in the film. At least, there wasn’t to my eyes. Unless you are that guy who thinks old people and middle-class, married women with children cannot be protagonists of a film because their stories are drab. Had Ritesh Batra thought so, we wouldn’t have had Lunchbox, a deceptively feel-good film that goes just this much beyond feel-good, opening a world that is so ours yet painted with a warm, tender, home-grown, understated sensibility that till now we saw only in Iranian films.
So Irrfan Khan is an old man, Saajan Fernandes, who is about to retire from his job at the Claims Department in what I presume must be LIC, given it looks like a Govt organisation. He is a widower, childless, lonely and prickly like how the emotionally un-nurtured sometimes get. Work-wise he is punctilious, much respected and almost clock-work, again almost like how the emotionally un-nurtured sometimes get. He just might easily become Carl from Up in a few years. Or a middle-class Isak of Wild Strawberries.
One day, Saajan receives an unusually well-prepared lunch and then the next day a letter. He responds and a story grows out of those little bits of interactions that happen at lunch-time via a now-defunct medium – hand-written letters. The film packs such old-world symbols with aplomb, while just slipping them in casually. Letters, VCR with ‘Yeh Jo Hain Zindagi’ playing (Yes, sigh!), a song from Saajan; celebrating nostalgia with its characters and nudging us to try it too. Who knows we might like it too? And yes, I did. (Btw, is Yeh Jo Hain Zindagi on #YKW?)
The person on the other side of the letters is Ila, a young, middle-class housewife and mother, maybe in her late twenties or early thirties, who is already spent fulfilling the thankless responsibilities of a home-maker for a long time now. A few years older and she will become Francesca of Bridges of Madison County. But she isn’t there yet so she is conspiring with her neighbour aunty, present only in voice (the awesome Bharti Achrekar with her distinct voice), to win back the attentions of her husband, which, as they do, have eroded over time. Special lunches with special masalas are prepared in the hope that her husband will notice her again. But the first tiffin she sends him doesn’t reach him. Nor does the last. And by then it is too late. Maybe, that is better because what happens otherwise is what we want for Ila, not the dregs of a dead romance rekindled with wet wood.
And then there is Sheikh, played by that annoyingly smooth and frustratingly effortless actor Nawazuddin Siddique. An orphan who has come up on his own in this tough world and loves saying ‘Maa kehti thi’ because it adds ‘vazan’ (weight) to his quotes. He is looking for an anchor too and under his lisping, people-pleasing, yes-man, we see that vulnerable and achingly lonely man longing for someone elder he could call his own. He influences Saajan’s life as much as Saajan does his. (SPOILER – The scene where NS asks Saajan to represent him at the wedding may seem cheesy and clichéd but when Saajan actually does, the heft of emotion actually weighs you down. Suddenly, you realise this is what it meant to him. This is how much having someone you can call family can mean. By then, our Saajan has begun thawing too and we revel in it. SPOILER ENDS)
The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, if there is a film that personifies this, it is Lunchbox. Ila is trying to win her husband back through it, Saajan’s tough crust begins to melt in it and we also see Sheikh trying to woo Saajan’s confidence by his own culinary talent, but along with suitable pride he takes in his wife’s cooking. If at all food was a central motif in a film it was this. Nourishment. We all need it. Physical and emotional. After a point, the physical nourishment and the loveliness that comes with the excitement of change just becomes a symbol of emotional nourishment.
It is as tender as it gets, almost as tender as ‘Mary and Max’ was. The characters could just be Indianised versions of that touchingly, understated and very well-written film. The promises in Lunchbox are slightly more populist, a wee dream-like to really compare. But that is where it scores. In maintaining that thin line between selling dreams and mirroring reality while infusing hope. And if not for the ending, it could have killed the film, or dragged it down the much-beaten path of ‘potential thi, expore nahi kiya.’ Because, in the end, try as we might to resist it, suddenly it becomes our story, we are pulled in, by force. Forced to commit to it, engage with it at a deeper level because our own catharsis depends on it. How? Experience it and then we will talk.
I haven’t watched a movie on old age more painful than Sarah Polley’s ‘Away From Her’, which shows the pain of growing old in all its nakedness. Irrfan as Saajan is brilliant as he wears that pain as a daily accessory, treating it almost as a part of life. Yet, there is a balance in tone, where we never indulge in his sorrow vicariously, yet it touches us as we see him being rough with little kids and then staring longingly into other people’s houses, watching them eating noisily together. We worry what will happen to him now that he is retiring and from the looks of it, it seems he is worrying too. Just that his worries are masked with a longing he himself doesn’t want to admit.
Ila on the other hand has been brave enough to admit it. And brave enough to do something about it. She has a confidante in her neighbour aunty who has been taking care of her bed-ridden husband for fifteen years without complaint. And she has a mother who, instead of being in pain, feels empty and relieved, the day her husband dies. All she feels is hungry she says and it is a stunning metaphor of nourishment again. What comes out after the cork is removed on years of repression, years of living with an extinguished relationship? Maybe, Ila sees her future in her mother because, we surely do.
A lot of the film is editing. Ritesh Batra admitted it too. The stories of Saajan and Ila are inter-cut with an intuitive sense of excitement. It is all repetitive, everything the two do, they can’t help it, their lives are like that, mundane, boring and same always. What’s worse, ours is the same but the story-telling takes care of that, there is no boredom or ennui hitting us. Slightly mismatched voice-overs, visual exploration of possibilities and a sense of control in scenes showing Saajan and Ila alone transports the film out of monotony so much that the deliberately cultivated tedium becomes part of the fabric of the film without becoming an obstacle.
There is a refreshing un-self-consciousness about the film that is so rewarding, one is wonderstruck to know it is the director’s debut film. Irrfan Khan, we know isn’t a self-conscious actor, repetitive and uninspiring he maybe at times but never self-conscious. Nimrat Kaur isn’t either and it is a pleasure to watch two actors who know the meaning of restraint and understatement. Nimrat Kaur takes the staid and plaid Ila out of her very common characterisation and infuses so much warmth in her that we cannot but help root for her. All this without any manipulation. However, while the world was busy adoring Irrfan I gave away my awe and jaw to Nawazuddin Siddique. The man is something else. Would it be blasphemy if I say watch the film for him above all?
Mumbai is a silent character as well, looking on at its victims, as they grapple with their lives in this big, sprawling city of faceless people full of dreams waiting for a miracle to transform their lives. Do Saajan, Ila and Sheikh find theirs uplifted? Do their dreams find wings and their desires expression? Does loneliness consume them or release them to fly on? Is loneliness on celluloid different than it is for you and me? There is only one way to find out and that is by watching this delectable film this Friday. If only we got fare like this more often, we’d be feeding off the cinemas more often too. Here’s wishing Lunchbox a dream run at the BO.