Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Lunchbox

[Note: Sony Pictures Classics provided me with a screener DVD of this film.]

The Lunchbox has so many strengths and joys that director/writer Ritesh Batra fits together perfectly. The acting, the shifting portions of loss and discovery, the beautiful development of details in characters' physical contexts that sometimes contrast and sometimes parallel—all of these
stack on top of the other to form an impressively effective construction. They can also separate out again, each one offering something delicious to the viewer, maybe something a little unexpected, as layers are revealed and ingested.

With some effort and oversimplification, this analogy might even stretch to compare audiences who mostly consume mainstream Bollywood to Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), 35 years in the same monotone office, who one day find themselves with something slightly different, cooked by an unknown chef who is deft and invested in quality, that immediately piques their interest and offers a different sustenance. Just as Ila (Nimrat Kaur) listens to cooking programs on the radio and seeks seasoning advice from her upstairs neighbor, Batra is so careful and so attuned to detail in almost all that he has created in the film.

However, after awhile, the film's central philosophy—sometimes the wrong train can take you to the right station—becomes less like a brief, fleeting message from a stranger with whom you're somehow sharing the fundamental and intimate acts of feeding and being fed and more like the nagging note from a Pinterest-happy parent or partner for the umpteenth time. "This is the first day of the rest of your life!!! " The film violates "show, don't tell" in a way (and at a point in the story, for that matter) that distracts and detracts from all its significant loveliness. It's an incredibly thoughtful film throughout, and I don't understand why Batra has multiple characters state the message out loud in dialogue when it was already perfectly clear from the (relatively) natural revelations about their lives and the connections the characters form with each other. The idea of "wrong train, right destination" was portrayed very literally yet somehow also more subtly in the super-mainstream Chennai Express  that released just a few weeks prior to The Lunchbox and audiences gobbled it down.

Huh. The Lunchbox is louder and more overblown than Chennai Express. Only in this one aspect, but still.

I have absolutely no problem with the fundamental layer of this film-as-tiffin being cheese. I love cheese, especially when it is the flavor of people falling in love through the written word. The Lunchbox is incredibly emotionally effective not just portraying a romance but also in representing the risks and rewards of relationships of various kinds. Its approach recognizes the basic human condition: the people all around us carry with them pain and difficulties. And it does so without any melodrama at all. These things are as much a part of the texture of everyday life as dishes drying in the rack or reading glasses in your pocket. To me, realizing that you never really know what even the people closest to you are struggling with this is one of the core truths of being an adult, and I am delighted to see a film whose characters recognize it and become closer and, more significantly, happier because of it. They carefully share with and respond to one another, but they never shout despite the scale of what they admit. I love how each instance of the literal unfolding of the notes in the tiffin becomes a revelation of about both the writer and the reader. The more we know about the hurt and fear Ila and Saajan have, the more we appreciate how much their relationship means to each other. They are such solitary people; despite living in the maximum city, they seem so isolated.

In thinking back on the film, I am so appreciative of the addition of Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). When we meet Saajan and Ila, their lives are...if not monotonous, then certainly incredibly routine and predictable, and as people they seem stable in life (note Ila's proud triumph that a shirt last worn on her honeymoon about six years ago still fits) but certainly not content.
For Shaikh, though, life is an adventure, and he is wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, and happy about it. He has traveled. He has hope. He smiles and chatters away. There is a sizable proportion of facade to this small man—an orphan, a trainee, a romantic with a big caveat—but he is full of effort and striving. If the film had only been about Ila and Saajan, I might have found it too sappy, but with Saajan and Shaikh's friendship also blossoming and providing real meaning to both of them, it's a much richer story that equally values non-romantic love. I only wish Ila had a friend too, but it makes sense that she was basically stuck in the walls of her home, with duties of daughter, wife, and mother, as so many women are. (I think it's quite significant that her neighbor, the closest thing she has to a friend, is similarly confined and has responsibilities that mean she will never be able to come downstairs and watch tv or go get coffee with Ila.)

How appropriate that this film is named after an everyday object that is also a conveyance, as both types of physical things appear frequently and flesh out and connect the stories. Fans, bananas, jewelry; trains, buses, a disused bicycle, a promised scooter, a splurge on an auto, the necessity of a taxi; even the notes themselves, which are just little pieces of paper but of course carry so much more. Similarly, small acts become big ones through their meaning: Ila removing jewelry, Shaikh prepping dinner, Saajan watching old sitcoms (especially contrasted with the mood created by Ila's husband watching tv), and the all-important mix-up of tiffin bags by the dabbawallahs and one character's attempt to correct it. Everyday sounds are also used to bridge thoughts, locations, and people. The structure of the once-a-day exchange of notes might make the film feel episodic, but instead Batra leads us in a progression of very thoughtfully connected scenes.

There is enough of a splash of magic—or, to be less wistful about it, the requirement that disbelief is suspended here and there—that about halfway through I thought "What is none of this is real? What if the notes were all in one of these people's imaginations?" (Is this the effect of Talaash, another film about everyday, sad, stressed people in modern Mumbai?) That's what I mean about the fundamental cheese of the story: somehow you have to accept that the famously precise dabbawallahs continue to make the same mistake day after day and that their mistaken happens to link two people who actually want to write expressive notes to a stranger. While it's presented by using quotidian elements that populate the world of actual adults and focuses on the quiet decisions that expand small lives, it's not very far from the remarkable lost-and-found family members or loves that populate masala and rom-coms across the decades. At its core, the film goes well beyond coincidence. Fortunately, it also reminds us that there is a lot more to its central message than just hopping the wrong train and twiddling your thumbs until you arrive somewhere perfect. Particularly in Ila's life, the incorrect train can just take you to a place you don't want to go. The meaningful journey—and I do think the film is more interested in the journey than the destination, despite the motto—requires paying attention, asking questions, reaching out, and responding.

Click here for US screening dates and locations.

2 comments:

bollywoodfilme said...

This is a great film review! Now I really want to watch this movie. :)

Nice greetings :))

Michael said...

great film, so slow, subtle, demanding even. Very thoughtful and incisive review, thanks!