DIRECTED BY: RITESH BATRA
STARRING: IRRFAN KHAN, NIMRAT KAUR, NAWAZUDDIN SIDDIQUI, NAKUL VAID, YASHWI PUNEET NAGAR with BHARATI ACHREKAR, DENZIL SMITH and LILETTE DUBEY
“Making 8 references to other movies is not writing a review,” a text message said, almost 24 hours after I had published my first ‘review’ of Ritesh Batra’s ‘The Lunchbox.’ You can read that ‘review’ here. Or you can scroll down a little and that will be the first thing you see after this attempted, almost independent take on ‘The Lunchbox’ where I shall pretend that it is the only film made on the planet, and that the joy of having watched ‘The Lunchbox’ had little to do with the fact that it reminded me of so many films and concepts I respected, if not completely liked. Additionally, I also believe that my obsession with the film’s themes of loneliness had rendered me aloof as well where I appear to have failed to grasp the bigger picture. With this second review of mine, I hope to fill all those gaps.
Let me start with this one bone I didn’t pick to completion in my last review: its title. ‘The Lunchbox’ is an anglicized title for a film that manages to capture a little bit of rustic reality, even though it is mostly in the paradigm of borderline gimmickry. This does not render it insincere. The film exaggerates to make a point, but each exaggeration shows visibly the efforts of someone trying to sober it down. Then why ‘The Lunchbox’? Is this some ‘Ship of Theseus’ stunt of arming the movie with an over-simplified title that allows for a moral as well as socioeconomic high ground where one sits with a clipboard and makes observations? If there is a reason why I felt a little dissatisfied with the title, it is because I felt it could have incorporated some of the magic the film brims with.
But then this is not to say ‘The Lunchbox’ is not a magical title. You see its relevance in the opening sequence. You see it every moment from then on. The opening sequence shows the Dabbawallahs of Mumbai engaged in the tedious task of transporting a gazillion lunchboxes to offices across the city. They pedal their respective cycles on a dotted line they have drawn for themselves inside their head. They pass their time singing the same song. In fact, the same camera angle is used to show this one particular Dabbawallah parking his bicycle below Ila’s apartment, following which there is a shot of a lunchbox kept at her doorstep – almost on the same place on the doormat, as though there is an X that marks the spot. In course of their unremarkable routine, they are magicians unaware of the weight of the material they carry to and carry back from the claims department in the insurance firm where a certain Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan) works.
‘The Lunchbox’ is thus both banality and an unconscious, gradual drift towards the remarkable, which also gets encapsulated in routine. To the Dabbawallah, the lives of Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and Saajan are no different from the lunchboxes he delivers every day. Even for Saajan and Ila, the transition from nonchalant widower or mind-numb housewife to “lover in despair” is almost unnoticeable. In making this shift, there is not a moment that they stray from the dull and dreary world of calculators, office files, kitchen sink, brinjals or the mid-day meal service, even. Confined to the same machine that seems to offer no respite, they find their ‘out’. Their lives then move slowly into a domain of magical reality, where – on the face of it – a lunchbox seems to have a conversation with them, trading witticisms in toneless narratives that offer a sort of Brechtian window into emotion. To add to that is Ila’s conversation with this unseen woman from upstairs. These are instances of ‘magic’ in the very reality that threatens to make prisoners of them; maybe even does.
In all his attempts to communicate with this unknown letter-writer woman who is so disenchanted with her life that she can’t even bring herself to grieve for it, Saajan completely ignores and rejects the advances of this genuine and downright forthright individual by the name of Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, absolutely delightful). Middle-aged government officials are so trapped in their own heads they need a letter in a lunchbox to open themselves to meaningful companionship right in front of them. There is an absolutely stunning sequence in the middle of the film when Saajan, from being the man who literally ran away from this pest of an individual, backs him to the brink when he owns up for a mistake he had committed. What follows is a conversation between benefactor and beneficiary, perhaps the first time they ‘speak’ to each other. Shaikh, the man with his life ahead of him, speaks with such conviction that he is unapologetic even with his apologies, staring right into the eyes of a man who simply can’t stare back. Saajan has his fair share of things to say, some even in anger that he rediscovers when exasperation seems to not suffice anymore. But never does he look into Shaikh’s eyes. Him, Shaikh, the filmmaker and the viewer all know that his reading glasses are not the excuse. How has it happened that one gets so trapped within oneself that one cannot even look straight when talking to someone? This is blindfolds we’re talking about – not even blinkers.
By distinguishing between Saajan and Shaikh, we are not distinguishing between people but draw attention to the time that has passed between them. For all we know, Shaikh could exactly be what Saajan would have been twenty years before. His marriage photograph will have been no different, save for the ceremony. The film actually goes a step ahead from this deduction and tries to tell us their lives are not so very different right now, let alone twenty years earlier. Shaikh is about to be married. Saajan fancies himself to have a ‘girlfriend’. This is not to say that he feels youthful. Quite the opposite, as illustrated in a lot of scenes. This is to say, however, that he is but in a loop that he has gotten accustomed to that ‘growing old’ hasn’t really struck and never will strike him. It will be but a moment when he stands in his bathroom smelling an old man in the shower that he will have to tell himself he is, after all, a man on the verge of retirement.
‘The Lunchbox’ is a magic portal which enables the two deep sleepers in Saajan and Ila to wake up from their slumber and cope with a reality that seems to have redefined itself for them. Ila then hastens to go ahead and make sense of this amorphous relationship she shares with this letter-writer, even as she complains to him that her husband has an affair. Saajan shakes off his dead wife to give life a shot. These people unknowingly escape the realms of the sacrosanct as ‘morality’ takes a step back to guide them through this newly-erected structure, quite like the autorickshaw that takes Saajan through the city he barely knows anymore. Again, this is not to say that they have escaped the paradigm of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. This is to say they suddenly discover themselves in the middle of this newfound routine, where it is usual for them to pine for each other. This is not trivialization. This is reinforcement of the overarching metaphor of the lunchbox, where the very idea of ‘respite’ is yet another clueless confinement.
You can visibly see the fight to keep away from abstraction, staying faithful to ground reality even as ‘The Lunchbox’ is extensively a film about concepts and, in a way, abstraction. The film employs both the easiest and the hardest devices to attempt the same. The easiest is the treatment – long shots, shaky camera, close-ups, shots that outlast their lifetimes in a desperate attempt to speak to the viewer. Yet it does not try to be picturesque. It does not pack the wonderment and marvel of an outsider in picturing various locales. What is attempted instead is the dryness and banality in an everyday observer’s tiresome commute, entertained by nothing but the coincidences of life like when the children who beg for alms on the train sing a song you had listened to on the radio the night before – a song from a film that has the same title as your name. To the viewer, it is a gimmick. But then it is an attempt on the writer’s part to offer the character what the film both gifts and denies him equally: respite.
The hardest device is the acting. You can choose to brand a film with your pet concept, shoot postcards and ride on so-called intellectual merit. Or you can find the right people who would flesh your characters out enough at least so they don’t look like props. ‘The Lunchbox’ burdens its actors with the responsibility of having to keep their awkwardness, their confused state of suffering and the little moments when they break from these traps, both when they are by themselves, as well as in their interactions. It is hard to say which is more demanding. Nimrat Kaur is beautiful as the bewildered Ila who has to look like she has been taught how to feel but never could quite bring herself to. Irrfan Khan has not quite shed his swagger, and is almost typecast in a character who takes a higher ground throughout the film, even in self-deprecation. There are scenes where the star in him threatens to outshine the warm glow of the actor, but in all, Khan’s performance is pleasant rather than problematic. And Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the man who has played as many different roles as the films he has acted in, gives us yet another.
‘The Lunchbox’ is a film that is sincere in its efforts to do justice to its own concepts as well as the socioeconomic realities it sets itself up in. It is an affecting film that gives the viewer a sense of validation for his/her own wait for life to happen; for magic that will occur to you. Even and especially at its quietest, most awkward moments, it speaks for you, your numbness, your predicament. It is not meant to be intellectualized, for it does not have the hand of a gourmet chef who wants a five-star rating on his recipe. It bears instead the care of a housewife who only cares for acknowledgement, whose face can both light up and fall at the sight of an empty lunchbox. Needless to say, she earns yours.