Jan 24, 2014
It’s a special occasion when, in the midst of craven flicks which genuflect to the lowest common denominator, in glides a film that has the balls to stand its ground. Writer-director Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox is a dainty little story that believes in itself so firmly that its strength of character moves you. It’s also incredibly sassy.
The Lunchbox, set in Mumbai and shot on location, is a gently pulsating sweet-sad story of loneliness and love, of wilting spirits finding water again. There are three women in three marriages in this film, of which two are ailing. The third one is over, almost, only the last rites haven’t been performed. There are two men in the film – one who has lived a full life and is getting ready to quietly slip off the face of the earth; the other is eager to begin.
What’s both shocking and soothing is what the film shows us — that it takes very little for a soul to come back to life. Mostly, just a hint of hope will do.
Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a widower, is a government servant who works in the claims department – he sifts numbers, verifies claims and clears payments. He’s a diligent worker who doesn’t mingle.
Since his wife died, Fernandes fixed an expression and settled on a tone to deal with the world. He opted for a sort of sad but antagonistic loneliness, and now plans to take voluntary retirement and put a stop to the daily grind of taking the train from Bandra to his office, eating out of a dabba and punching numbers on his calculator all day long.
In another part of town, Malad East, lives Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young housewife and mother of little Yashvi. During the day, when Ila is alone, she’s not lonely. There’s Deshpande Aunty who lives upstairs. The two women talk to each other through their kitchen windows, about what’s cooking, what’s happening with Deshpande uncle and shopping lists. They also listen to old Hindi songs.
Ila’s only connect with her husband is the food she cooks for him. The dabbawallas carry the tiffin she packs every day, but when they bring it back, she senses dreariness. So, with Deshpande Aunty’s help, she grabs new, exciting recipes. Ila cooks a special meal for her husband, but the dabba doesn’t reach him. It goes to Fernandes. Husband doesn’t notice that he got a dhaba dabba; Fernandes licks Ila’s tiffin clean.
Next day, on aunty’s insistence, Ila slips in a note under the chapattis — a note to the man who is eating the food she is cooking for her husband. Fernandes receives the note, reads it, and replies.
The device of the aunty upstairs, whom we don’t meet but recognise from her quick and sharp tongue (it’s Mrs Waghle/Chameli’s mother from Chameli ki Shaadi), is genius. It’s aunty who gives the moral go-ahead to Ila to write to Fernandes. The intention is not to instigate an affair; it’s cute curiosity born out of boredom.
And so, every day, the green pinstriped messenger bearing delicious surprises also carries sheets torn out from notebooks – Fernandes writes on single-lined sheets; Ila writes on four-lined sheets from her daughter’s English notebook; he writes in English and begins with “Dear Ila”; she writes in Hindi and begins with “Hello”.
Meanwhile, in the claims department, Fernandes’ replacement has been hired. Fernandes has to train this man, Aslam Sheikh (Nawazuddin Siddique), whose slimy “Sirrrr” and ingratiating manner mislead both Fernandes and us. We think him a creepy character, lacking in social graces and polish. But there’s more to him.
Aslam from Dubai and Saudi, living on a smile and a shoeshine, begins snapping at Fernandes’ heels, eager to learn, to be trained. While he pesters a reluctant Fernandes at his desk and during lunch time, we begin to see that Ila is now cooking for Fernandes and that Fernandes has grown possessive of his dabba.
Both Aslam and Ila are tugging at Fernandes – insisting that he break his frown and allow himself a smile.
Dead, loveless marriages and urban desolation are themes that have often drawn the attention of writers and filmmakers. But this silent, daily wail is difficult to echo on screen. Only Woody Allen and Albert Elbee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) come to mind.
There’s a nice playfulness in Ritesh Batra’s screenplay. While it conveys the compromised lives his characters have settled for, it also gives them and us reason to laugh out loud. Sometimes the humour is dark and disturbing, like the scene where one woman’s husband dies; often it’s balmy.
The film has a contemplative pace, like daily life. Ritesh Batra, essentially a short filmmaker, brings his spry storytelling skills to a feature. That The Lunchbox has the elegance, spunk and thrift of a short film is to the credit of its entire team.
Ritesh’s characters are seemingly clichéd – a bored housewife; an efficient but crotchety Christian; a slimy new recruit. But when his camera takes its position across these characters, to catch them in their most candid moments, it allows these clichéd characters to turn into real people, bursting with emotions.
No character is more clichéd and chamkila than the one assigned to Nawazuddin Siddique, and yet his character unravels in the most interesting, memorable way. Deeply poignant but also very funny, Aslam says seemingly irrelevant things that pack in deep feelings. No one who has watched this film will ever forget the line about “Meri Ammi hamesha kehti hai…” It’s a blank verse that floats in the air for a bit and then flies away.
Each actor here has given an incredibly refined performance. Bharati Achrekar’s Deshpande Aunty is a character made out a voice and our imagination. Nimrat Kaur is beautifully restrained and never once looks straight at the camera. Yet, we get very protective about her.
I watched some of the scenes which had both Siddique and Khan with a devious smile. There are murmurs in Bollywood about Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddique — that the young one makes his senior very insecure. I can see why that could happen, but Mr Khan has no reason to be anxious.
If the film’s lead character, the sentinel-like three-tier steel tiffin-box dressed in green pinstripes, could react, it would clank away till the end credits roll. But the moment Irrfan Khan’s name rolls up, it would quickly gather itself, stand at attention and salute.
Mr Khan has always warmed the cockles of my heart. Now he’s taken my heart and left the cockles for Nawauddin. Mr Siddique, I hope, will cook them with pasande, his very own special recipe.
Irrfan and Nimrat hardly share any screen-time. Yet their chemistry is crackling. Despite the formality of being complete strangers, there’s a touching intimacy and urgency to the exchanges between Ila and Fernandes.
This review won’t be complete without a mention of the film’s costume designer, Niharika Bhasin Khan whose brilliance lies in astute little details. I recall, in Kai Po Che, she had given little Ali (Digvijay Deshmukh) a green plastic tabeez. Here she’s given Fernandes prescription glasses in a Made in China spectacle case, with a clip. If you ever meet Mr Fernandes, and he’s not carrying that golden aluminum box in his shirt pocket, he’ll seem incomplete.