22 September, 2013
The Lunchbox: Simply Delicious
There is magic in cinema, undeniably so. Everyone who goes to the movies knows this and experiences it. The most common item on the wish list of every individual sometime or the other has been the ‘want and ability’ to be invisible yet present in the lives of other people and watch them go about their motions. There is power in this simple voyeurism. We are treated to one such. Ritesh Batra, the director here takes us on a magical ride of watching three separate souls going about their lives at the mere price of a ticket. It is money well worth spent and how.
The Lunchbox is a simple tale very well told. As we remove the lid, with the separate tiers and compartments the tale opens out in its many layers and nuances. It’s a sensual movie, strictly not in the commonly understood meaning of the word, but in the manner in which it embraces your every sense. It heightens the sensations, inadvertently tickles your funny bone and engages cerebrally with a feel last seen in the 70’s when Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and the two Basu's were making their movies. We have in Ritesh Batra , a genuine claimant to the large vacant spot left by these unassuming giants of middle cinema.
It is a Bombay story, a story of lives in constant motion. The lifeline of this city is effectively captured in two systems that transport men and material to their places of work and home. The local trains of Mumbai and the system of the dabbawala’s (the lunchbox couriers). The dabbawaala system is a widely known case study in Harvard University for its six sigma efficiency of a network of largely semi-literate people. They were feted by the Prince of Wales and invited for the Royal Wedding of his son. But that’s by the by, as one lunchbox sent by a young housewife in suburban Malad, Ila ( Nimrat Kaur ) falls outside this bell curve of efficiency and lands on the table of Saajan Fernandes (Irfaan Khan); a curmudgeonly claims clerk in some government department on the verge of retirement. And then unfolds a story of charming proportions. This honest mistake is perpetuated by the similar external wrappings of the box and a lonely housewife’s lovingly cooked food gets gobbled up clean by the widower subsisting on mass catered canteen fare. Both realize their mistake but persist in this culinary adventure and find comradeship. It highlights the plight of the lonely in large populated cities that are hungry for the simple things in life, a kind word, a shoulder, a person to talk to, to be understood and understand. Into this milieu steps in a third character Shaikh ( Nawazuddin Siddiqui) as an understudy to Saajan to take over after he retires. He is the pesky, sticky colleague who unnecessarily gets personal and familiar till one gets to know his story. It’s a tale of Ila & Saajan who unburden their inner thoughts to each other through notes in a dabba. The tale is also of Shaikh, an orphan making his way alone in his worklife; In his own way he too is hungry for acceptance and a camaraderie that he looks for from Saajan. In all of this the people seek and hope for happiness, in a crowded city where the closest can be very far and by a quirk of fate find that a mistake can actually turn out and make things come out right.
The performances are excellent. Irfaan is a superlative actor and can stand up to be counted in the pantheon of India’s finest. His eyes express in a manner best articulated by the Marathi poet Kavi Grace in these lines
“Shabdatun Artha Umagava (From the word emerges a meaning)
Arthaatun Shabda Vagalata” (And then the meaning does not require the very word it emerged from)
He says it all and without many words too.
Nimrat Kaur is a find for cinema, her face is very familiar from the various commercials and stage shows she has done. As a performer she comes into the film honed, intelligent, beautiful and bringing to the character of Ila a rare honesty, integrity and balance that is a fitting footage share with an actor of the caliber of Irfaan. It’s no mean achievement for a first film.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui is totally believable, and like a chameleon fits into every part he accepts colouring it with shades making Shaikh an important element of this story. A lesser actor would not have done. The other notable performance is of Bharati Acharekar, an actor who is not seen on screen we only hear her voice. It is through the crisp homilies, suggestions and interactions with Nimrat that she visually fleshes out her part and it’s a masterful angle in the script. Lilette Dubey comes in a part that could well have been edited out and really adds nothing to the interplay of the others; even the children around Irfaans house convey a lot more. About the technicians, the Food Designer who has created the Lunchboxes visually deserves a pat, even without Irfaan the food looks delicious onscreen to cause a rumble in my stomach. Niharika Khans apparel design is spot on and the dabbawala’s who were to be the primary subject of Ritesh’s documentary, become the system through which he conveys this tale. Yet as the promos said it is not a story of love (that was marketing), it is a story of communication, unlikely friendship and finding a confidante with whom you resonate.
I love the idiom of cinema the way it is panning out with newer voices emerging telling tales that though rooted in India can be understood by a global film viewer with ease. Zoya Akhtar, Farhaan Akhtar, Kiran Rao, and now Ritesh Batra are directors who are world citizens and great storytellers. The variety of the 70’s is coming back into Hindi Cinema and augurs exciting times ahead.