Shashi Baliga

Cinematic feast in a Lunchbox

Shashi Baliga | Updated on September 28, 2013

Exceptional outing: Irrfan Khan

Nimrat Kaur in The Lunchbox

There’s a scene, pretty much in the beginning of The Lunchbox, where Saajan Fernandes prepares for lunch in his shabby government office canteen and opens his dabba (tiffin carrier to everyone outside Mumbai). On the face of it, it’s as mundane a scene as you could get. It’s just your regular, average-looking, middle-aged man in a boring job, doing what he does every day at the office. And director Ritesh Batra plays it very straight and incredibly quiet; no dialogue, no fancy camerawork, no thumping background score prompting you to notice, nothing — just a straight scene.

Since you know the storyline already, you’re aware that this is an important scene, one that actually kicks off the story. So where’s the drama, the fanfare, the flourish?

It’s all there, contained in Irrfan Khan — his eyes, his near-imperceptible gestures, his body language and his pauses — as he discovers that the dabba is not his, but someone else’s. If this scene doesn’t convince you what an exceptional actor this man is, I’m not sure what will.

You know right then, in the first few minutes of The Lunchbox, that this movie is going to be special. You’ve seen great movies, grand movies, funny movies, heart-warming movies; now see The Lunchbox. It’s a quiet triumph of film-making that is warm, funny and true. A film that reveals its layers delicately, that explores the pain of loneliness through its key characters with such a light touch that you’re smiling your way all through.

It’s difficult to believe that this is a first film — the writing, like Batra’s directorial touch, is so good, there are throwaway lines of brilliance. Like the movie’s theme summed up: “Sometimes, even the wrong train can take you to the right destination.” The bathroom scene in which Saajan realises he’s an old man (can’t tell you the lines now or it’ll be a spoiler). The just-bereaved wife who confesses that after years of worry, all she feels, now that her husband is dead, is hunger: She wants to eat parathas.

And the acting! The Lunchbox is Irrfan’s film; there’s no two ways about that, even if seems unfair to the rest of the cast, which is there, just behind him. Nimrat Kaur is achingly beautiful as Ila, the desolate housewife who sends him lovingly made lunches and bits of her heart and soul in the letters she writes him. The always marvellous Nawazuddin Siddiqui (as Fernandes’ junior, Shaikh) is the ebullient foil to these two lonely figures. And there is veteran Marathi film and television actress Bharati Achrekar, never seen, only heard, but totally delightful as Mrs Deshpande, Ila’s neighbour, who dispenses advice and masalas in equal measure.

This is not only one of the most charming films to have come out of India in a long time, it’s also the best Mumbai film in ages. The city has rarely been photographed and used in as true a manner as The Lunchbox has. (I have to confess to a special soft corner here — a couple of the locations, including the Irani café where Saajan and Ila plan to meet, are from my part of town.)

That The Lunchbox has lost out to Gyan Correa’s The Good Road as India’s Oscar nominee has caused much heartburn in some quarters and much debate in others. I have not seen The Good Road yet (I do plan to see it soon) so I can’t really comment on the relative merits of the two movies at this point.

But this much I can say: most people have not seen both films but are charged with all the (deserved) praise that has been showered on The Lunchbox, including the prestigious Critics Week Viewers Choice Award at Cannes in May this year.

That award proved that The Lunchbox had a universal appeal, which is what most of its supporters were banking on. Our big chance to win at the Oscars… gone! That’s the feeling in the Lunchbox camp. As one of its co-producers, Karan Johar, tweeted, “...#Lunchbox had every factor working in its favour… we may have just lost our golden chance…. SAD” (sic). Another co-producer, Anurag Kashyap, had this to tweet: “…goes to show why we completely lack the understanding to make films that can travel across borders”.

The producers’ desire to win at the Oscars is understandable. But what about the rest of us? There are two schools of thought: One, that the Oscars are just a big hype-magnet and it’s not like the best films get chosen or even awarded every year, so why fuss about them?

The second is that, if we’re going to compete, we might as well do it intelligently. I’m firmly in the second category. If you want an Oscar, the Palme d’Or at Cannes or any such award in the West, you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that our mainstream films are not really their cup of tea, that if you want to win there, you’ve got to play their game, not ours.

For instance, Lagaan was a great film for us, but simply not the kind that wins at the Oscars. There was much heartache that year — 2001 — when Lagaan lost out to the Bosnian No Man’s Land for the Foreign Language Film statuette. I was one of the disappointed — till I saw No Man’s Land. Its story is not just universal, it’s elemental. It’s life vs death, friend vs enemy, man vs man. It’s a film filled with pain, yet told with no sentimentality, tears or melodrama. No songs or dances, of course. And it was just 98 minutes long. The comparisons with Lagaan are obvious. Our film had no chance, really.

To quote Anurag Kashyap on Twitter again, “It proves one thing — this whole exercise is pointless. We should just quietly make our films.” That sums up the Indian chase for the Oscar nicely, it does.

> shashibaliga@gmail.com

Published on September 26, 2013

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