DIRECTED BY: RITESH BATRA
STARRING: IRRFAN KHAN, NIMRAT KAUR, NAWAZUDDIN SIDDIQUI, NAKUL VAID, YASHWI PUNEET NAGAR with BHARATI ACHREKAR, DENZIL SMITH and LILETE DUBEY
‘The Lunchbox’ was the second of my ‘coming to terms with things’ trilogy for today. The first one was the Josh Radnor film ‘Liberal Arts’ which I watched for the second time. And I made my way back from the cinema hall thinking I might have to revisit Fatih Akin’s ‘The Edge of Heaven’ later which would be the third film in that sequence. I might go ahead and watch it. I might not. I thought I’d write what I thought about ‘The Lunchbox’ down first. You can read what I thought about ‘Liberal Arts’ here, as written the first time I watched it. Not much has changed of what I felt about it. A little more clarity, a little more fondness. The academic observations have remained more or less the same.
Surprisingly, the film I was most reminded of when I watched ‘The Lunchbox’ is neither of the films I have mentioned above. Nor was it ‘Manhattan’, Woody Allen’s biggest shot at optimism if he ever showed a little bit. The film I was most reminded of was this Marathi film called ‘Masala’ which was my ‘pick of the festival’ at OSIAN last year. ‘Masala’ captured a suburban couple’s pursuit of ‘the better life’, with a defining climactic moment where both of them separately find contentment in the realization that they have all they can ask for: each other. ‘The Lunchbox’ ends in mutual hopefulness (or a lack thereof) in the fact that the one they are looking for is looking for them as well. They might or might not find each other. Yet they find contentment in the fact that the wheels are in motion.
But were the wheels ever idle? In answering this question, we find ourselves having to play by the presuppositions that either/all of these films bring to the table. Or rather, the overarching presupposition that the only thing palatable about life is flux. Not motion, but flux. This is best exemplified in Prof. Hoberg’s (Richard Jenkins) comment in ‘Liberal Arts’ when he says “Any place you don’t leave is a prison.” We are having to accord ourselves to this one presupposition that to be stuck in the same routine all these characters find themselves in is the same as being ‘trapped’. It is not hard to align oneself with that notion. On the one hand, it is pretty characteristic of my scheme of things, where I stand in life and my approach to life and living in general. On the other hand, there is also the “dirty little secret” (again, in Prof. Hoberg’s words) that no one in the world actually feels like an adult. You either come to terms with the fact that your life is and will continue to be unremarkable, or you refuse to do so.
There is nothing wrong with Saajan Fernandez’ (Irrfan Khan, with less of his swagger) life. He is a widower claiming early retirement from his position as a clerk in the claims department of an insurance firm. He has no one for company. Does that make him lonely? I don’t think so. If anything, Saajan has reconciled with the fact that life can get no better. He is like Bruce Wayne in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, having reached a point where life can be no different. He has reached his cruise altitude. All that is left is to go full-on autopilot: which is precisely what he does.
This is one step beyond loneliness. To be lonely is to grieve that one isn’t getting one’s due in all of life’s joys and riches. Saajan has reconciled with the fact that life can be nothing but lonely. If loneliness is a limbo, his state of mind is one where he has pulled the plug already. His shrugging off of the pest in Shaikh (Nawazzudin Siddiqui, delightful) is not the reaction of the irritable working husband having to deal with stress, anxiety, school admissions, constipation and what not. He is more like Ebenezer Scrooge who’d say no to Christmas because it doesn’t let the dead decompose.
One day, Saajan receives a lunchbox door-delivered by the famed dabbahwalahs of Mumbai. The box looks no different from the one he receives every day. But the food is not the same. It is not the aloo-gobi that so disgusts him. It is nothing remarkable either. The one distinguishing detail about this food is that it shows care – care that a loving wife shows her husband, which he now has intercepted. Care that wants nothing but acknowledgement for it to soldier on; for her to soldier on. Her name is Ila. He comes to know of it through a note she slips into the folds of a chapatti as she lets him know that the food she cooks for her husband is getting delivered to him by mistake. Saajan writes back. The conversation begins.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur, absolutely beautiful) has reconciled to a lifeless marriage. Remember the “old lady” Celine talks about in ‘Before Sunrise’ and how their lives are but her dream with a theme of regret? Well, Ila gets to speak to that old lady, actually. She calls her “Aunty,” a voice from above which, from giving cooking suggestions to life lessons, pretty much takes her through her whole interaction with Saajan. She even functions as a jukebox when she plays ‘Mera Dil Bhi Kitna Pagal Hai’ from the film ‘Saajan’ at request. She prods Ila to take the adventure as it beckons. Ila takes it up. This choice of hers is in sync with something Saajan says in the course of their correspondence. To paraphrase, he says one’s actions are rendered meaningless in the absence of someone to share it with. This is a revelation. In the life of someone who is only perhaps a little more affable than Gru in ‘Despicable Me’, this is a twist in the tale.
It is in the intense feeling of loneliness that both these people begin their search for joy. Let me take another ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ example to clarify. A fellow prisoner in the cave tells Bruce Wayne that it is in acknowledgement of the fear of death that one finds purpose in living. Likewise, it is by acknowledging their loneliness that Saajan and Ila seek their mutual company. Life blossoms. Saajan looks “10 years younger” as Shaikh puts it. Even Shaikh, annoying as he is with his advances, seems lovable. Saajan and Ila wake up from their coma to see that things have changed. And they scramble and scrounge to fix it, finding contentment in their efforts; in the fact that they are, for once, “trying.”
Life becomes precious with the knowledge that one can lose it. All distinctions between “want” and “need” are made at the onset of loss. Saajan is set to retire. Ila looks to move to Bhutan. Between them, they have a month. They could miss each other. They could meet. In the course of a month, they become important enough to each other that they would try, perhaps for as long as they live – much like how the night in ‘Before Sunrise’ was adequate for Jesse and Celine to want to meet again. ‘The Lunchbox’ thus resolves into Ila necessitating Saajan and vice-versa, despite constraints. Above the impossibility of it, there is also a very petty, subjective and yet crucial barrier. Saajan might not care for the fact that Ila is married, but is perturbed by the fact that he is much older than her. He sees in her a burning flame while he fancies himself to be a burnout, only to prove himself wrong as he shrugs it off and makes a sprint for it in the style of Woody Allen in ‘Manhattan’ as opposed to going the Josh Radnor way.
The only problem I had with ‘The Lunchbox’ was the title. I’d have liked something on the lines of ‘The Edge of Heaven.’ The Guy de Maupassant sort of banal title, I felt, took away from the poetry. There were also a couple of instances when I felt ‘The Lunchbox’ took the ‘Ship of Theseus’ route of over-explaining. Thankfully, they were very few. For the most part, ‘The Lunchbox’ is subtle filmmaking, with incredibly human performances spearheaded by the stunning Nimrat Kaur. Amidst films that manipulate people’s vulnerability, ‘The Lunchbox’ is a gift. It is not a one-time feast that satiates the voracious film-viewer who thirsts to consume. It is magic in an everyday event. In Glen Hansard’s words, it is a gift that “falls right in your hands.” Extra delightful, when you least expect it.