Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Lunchbox  

Khatta Meetha Teekha

Ritesh Batra’s debut feature is a fantasy come true, but done in a sweet, simple style that could make the viewer believe little miracles are possible.  Otherwise, what is the likelihood of two people connecting across the multitudes of Mumbai?  Social networking has made it possible, but fairytales do not exist in the prosaic world of cell phones and computers. The absence, or fallback, on these tools, makes The Lunchbox exist in a timeless universe, even though it is rooted in Mumbai.

The ‘letters exchanged between strangers’ plot has been used often in movies, but Batra imbues it with a melancholy that is deliciously appealing.

Cooking up tasty food to pack in the dabba for her aloof husband is Ila (Nimrat Kaur), whose only support in her lonely life is her upstairs neighbour (the voice of Bharati Achrekar), who directs her from the kitchen window. By a situation imagined by Batra (and not likely to happen), the lunchbox reaches the desk of crusty old widower Mr Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), who works in a government office at a boring job, in a deadening bus-train-walk routine, and back to a solitary existence in a decrepit Bandra bungalow.

Now a dabbawala could perhaps make a mistake once, not every day, but you have to suspend disbelief. The two start exchanging notes through the dabba, which grow into long exchanges of confidences. It’s the stranger on the train syndrome—people say anything to a fellow passenger, sure in the knowledge that they will never meet again.

In a clichéd love story, the plot would work towards getting them together. Here, Batra slowly builds on the small changes in their lives that this daily unburdening of angst brings about.  Fernandes actually makes friends with his annoyingly chirpy colleague Aslam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), Ila starts to hope and dream of a better life.

There are a few minor glitches, like the husband being a cold fish with no explanation. Or Ila’s daughter looking wide-eyed and terrified all the time.  Why the needless digression to the tragedy in Ila’s maternal home—dead brother, terminally ill father, beleaguered mother (Lillete Dubey miscast)? Fernandes perhaps chooses his solitude, but is it possible for a woman in Mumbai to have no friends or no interactions with anyone?  Two women in the story are stoically looking after disabled husbands, Ila is desperately trying to woo back hers and the daughter looks like she is headed for similar victimhood.

Still, the film holds out the possibility of romance—not necessarily of the happily ever after kind. And the performances are brilliant. Irrfan Khan could have worked on his accent, but his expressions are priceless; Nimrat Kaur makes an excellent debut, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui brings cheer every time he appears with a “Helllllo Siiiiirrrr.”

If audiences don’t give this one a chance, they will doom themselves to bad Bollywood films forever.


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