“The Lunchbox”… Eat, stray, love

Posted on September 22, 2013


And once again, the marketing misleads us. The trailer for The Lunchbox pretty much gives away the story, which is about Ila (the superb Nimrat Kaur) and Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) exchanging notes through the lunch dabbas she packs for him and falling in love. Watching the cutesy clips in the coming-attractions segment, I was led to expect a heartwarming and lightweight rom-com, like You’ve Got Mail or its marvellous inspiration, The Shop Around the Corner. After all, the surface is all gooey and rom-commy. There’s that premise, first, about two lonely people finding companionship. Ila’s neighbour, Deshpande Aunty,  is the BFF character, doing double-duty as fairy godmother. Her cooking tips enhance Ila’s efforts to impress her husband (Nakul Vaid) who stares at the TV during dinner. (The much older Saajan, during dinner, prefers to read a book.) And there’s the whole arc about the curmudgeon finding love and beginning to love life again. As his relationship with Ila blossoms, Saajan gives up smoking, learns to tolerate the bratty neighbourhood kids, and invites a colleague (Shaikh, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) to share his lunch. With all this, The Lunchbox does seem to be the film the trailer promised.

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But the director Ritesh Batra is after something else altogether – and it’s not just in the way he shoots, with long takes, without much cutting, leaving the actors free to enter and exit the frames. (A rom-com would never tolerate such “naturalism.”) Saajan – who’s a little too cutely named – is a widower. Ila’s husband, on the other hand, might as well be dead. He barely notices that his wife can still fit into the clothes she wore during her honeymoon. Saajan’s days are filled in crammed buses and trains, and in an office whose ordinariness is crushing. (There are no computers; just files everywhere.) Ila cooks, cleans, washes clothes – the ordinariness, the routine, of her life is equally crushing. Saajan has no friends. He has his lunch all by himself. Even the colleague beside him doesn’t seem to speak to him. Ila’s only friend appears to be the much older Deshpande Aunty, who lives upstairs and who never comes down. She’s just a voice. These are sad lives, and the communication between Saajan and Ila reveals itself to be equally sad. They’re so desperate to talk to someone, anyone, and they settle for scribbling stray thoughts into a note folded into a lunch dabba. Saajan says, “I think we forget things if we have no one to tell them to.” This is what the film is about. Try selling that in a trailer.

The Lunchbox is a fascinating mix of fact and fiction, documentary-like realism and flights of poetic whimsy. As the film opens, we see life-as-is, in and around Mumbai’s train stations – trains rolling in, passengers clogging the platform, little boys polishing the shoes of office-goers, and, most relevantly to this story, the full circle of the dabbawala’s day, from picking up lunch at home to loading it on a train to delivering it at the office, where a peon makes sure that the dabbas reach the right person. (That, despite this, Ila’s dabba ends up with Saajan instead of her husband is one of the conceits – or contrivances – we have to take for granted. When her husband tells Ila that the aloo gobi was good, when she made something else, wouldn’t she express instant surprise or shock? Wouldn’t she tell him, “What do you mean… aloo gobi?” But then, there would be no movie.) Batra takes us into the trains, where we see people singing devotional songs and chopping vegetables and offering their seats to older-looking men. The relationship between Ila and Deshpande Aunty, with them shouting to each other, is recognizably prosaic and middle-class. And the scenes in Saajan’s office leave us in little doubt about what it must be like in there (and what it must have been like for him to spend 35 years in there).

The romance is set against this realistic core. This isn’t just the romance between Saajan and Ila, but also the romance in the language in their letters, the romanticizing – if you will – of their loneliness. She writes in Hindi. He writes in starched English. (With Shaikh, though, he speaks in Hindi.) At first, his letters are as out-of-sync with social norms and graces as he is (and is there anyone better than Irrfan Khan at portraying alienation?) – he tells her, bluntly, that the food was too salty, and another time he says the food was so spicy that he had to have two bananas, which are “good for motions.” But gradually, he remembers what it’s like to talk to someone, and he hits his stride. In one profoundly moving letter, he writes about a man who paints the same thing every time, but in every painting, there’s just a little bit that’s different. He could be talking about his life.

Ila’s letters are equally evocative. And Batra does something magical here, literally. When Ila writes about a ceiling fan that stopped when the power went off, Saajan looks up at the fan over him, and it stops. The other fans in the office are on. Is this… magic? Magical realism? Is this part of the same cosmic conspiracy that caused her dabba to land up at his desk? This becomes a motif. Ila and Saajan may be separated by distance, but – like in the scene with that fan – his life spills over into hers, and hers into his. Urchins on his train sing Pardesi pardesi jaana nahin and Mera dil bhi kitna paagal hai – the songs are carefully chosen; they’re both strangers, pardesis, and the latter song is from a film that has his name as its title – and she hears these songs playing on Deshpande Aunty’s tape recorder. He waves at what appears to be a fly in front of his face, and she, at home, repeats this action. He’s stalled in traffic because a woman jumped off a terrace, and she hears this news on the radio. She finds her grandma’s recipes in a dairy, and he finds his wife’s old videocassettes, with recordings of old TV shows. And they both find themselves with a line that states that, sometimes, the wrong train can help you reach the right destination.

Saajan hears this line from Shaikh, a smarmy young go-getter who’s going to replace him when he retires in a month – and, slowly, The Lunchbox becomes the story of two relationships. The first, of course, is the one between Saajan and Ila, and the second, between Saajan and Shaikh, is more affecting because it’s less sentimental and manipulative (even if this manipulation, in the case of Saajan and Ila, is done very classily). At first, Saajan seems to resent Shaikh, who’s everything he’s not. Saajan is punctual, disciplined, courteous, aloof – Shaikh is the opposite. But gradually, as we learn more about Shaikh, we warm to him, as Saajan does. (It helps that Siddiqui, with apparent effortlessness, delivers the film’s best performance. Khan is excellent, but he’s begun to effect a bit of Meryl Streepish fussiness in his acting. We sometimes catch him “acting.”) Shaikh knows as much about loneliness as Saajan or Ila, for he grew up an orphan. And we see that that blustery, over-obsequious self he presents to people is probably something he’s developed over time, to get along with people. He gets the film’s best arc, transforming from an annoying little fool (at least in our eyes) to a man who ends up with some much-deserved happiness, even if it comes with a scooter plastered with roses.

The missteps are few. Some of the poetry is a tad too precious. People can’t be writing and speaking like this all the time. A bit about Bhutan didn’t work for me at all, and a scene with Ila’s mother (a miscast Lillete Dubey), after her husband’s death, rings false. It’s wonderful when she says, at first, that she’s hungry and she craves parathas. It’s such a naturally odd response to a tragedy. But then she states that this is such an odd response to a tragedy, spelling out what we have already registered. The character comes across far better in her only other scene, a ruthlessly practical scene (with no poetry), where she slyly hints to Ila that she’s going to need money for her husband’s monthly medical expenses. The shifting dynamics are pitch perfect. First Ila keeps offering money, and her mother keeps refusing (while sighing melodramatically that had her son been alive, this conversation wouldn’t have been necessary), but then, when the mother accepts the offer, Ila is dumbfounded, as if she realises she’s been played.

These other characters breathe some much-needed air into the central romance, which, after a point, could have become a little claustrophobic. I wish something more had been done about Ila’s suspicion that her husband is having an affair. As with the revelation that he enjoyed her “aloo gobi,” here too she doesn’t seem to react much at all. But the biggest misstep is the end, which should have come after the scene at the restaurant where Ila and Saajan plan to meet. We see what she does. We see what he does. That’s all that’s needed to close this story (with a lovely line about letting one into your dreams) – but Batra, suddenly, seems to want to live up to that trailer, and we get all rom-commy again, with missed connections and what not. Except, it’s all quite sad, and this delicate film cannot bear the weight of these labored contrivances. For a second, my heart stopped, thinking there was going to be one of those railway-station climaxes. Thankfully, no. Then again, that could have been the movie the trailer promised.

Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi