A character in The Lunchbox wistfully notes that if a man who slipped into coma ten years ago woke up today, he’d be disgusted with what’s become of the world and he’d rather go back into coma than live this unspectacular life.
However, if that man watched The Lunchbox, he’d perhaps relinquish his cynicism, because he’d be filled with hope and a wonderfully upbeat sense of purpose. That is the effect that Ritesh Batra’s debut feature has on you. It is the most optimistic film of the year, and one of the best. Batra is our very own Ramin Bahrani.
Happiness is relative and nostalgia is a drug – both these themes jimmy in and out of every scene in The Lunchbox. Yet the direction is so slight, the film barely even registers as a film. Batra, working with Bahrani’s director of photography Michael Simmonds, directs with warmth and affection for his characters and adds subtle poignancy to their story. There are no dramatic twists in The Lunchbox and there is believability to all the characters in it. Moreover it’s a pleasure to see a Hindi film that exudes a mature portrayal of adult characters who put their vulnerability on the line. It’s almost as though Batra made this film for the sole purpose of changing the rules of Indian cinema.
Irrfan Khan plays Saajan, an aging grouch nearing the end of his professional career. Saajan is Carl Fredricksen crossed with Max Goldman and Frank Slade. He’s the neighborhood uncle who stands alone in the balcony and refuses to return cricket balls when they fall in his garden. People put up with him, rather than enjoy his company. His abhorrence for human interaction hilariously contrasts with his assistant’s (Nawazuddin Siddique) overfriendly nature. Nimrat Kaur is Ila, a young, unhappily-married woman whose sad, expressive eyes mirror the life that is passing her by. Apart from a friend and confidante in her neighbour Mrs Deshpande, Ila is utterly alone in her contemplative gloom.
Saajan and Ila somehow manage to contact each other via handwritten notes in a lunch box. It’s a ridiculously romantic plot device, buoyed by terrific performances from Khan and Kaur. It is a pleasure to watch these two characters charm each other with moments of quiet vulnerability. At times, the film even flirts with the familiar tropes of a miscommunication and that of the hero running after the girl to win her back, but Batra somehow finds new ways to prance over the clichés, letting the story eventually fade out like a cute little daydream. Batra’s camera, like Saajan, goes through the motions of the world around him but lingering on details, instead of zipping away. Nobody in Bollywood does that. Done by a less talented filmmaker, it would seem indulgent or mundane.
Khan has never been one to dive head first into the golden pond of commercial success – his roles have skewed formula time and again. It’s as if he’s afraid of being mediocre and forgotten, and keeps outdoing himself in every role. Nimrat’s debut as a leading lady should catapult her to instant stardom – holding her own opposite Khan requires massive talent. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s extended cameo is charming to say the least, and Bharati Achrekar’s voicing of Ila’s neighbour is both hilarious and awesome.
There are plenty of moments to treasure in The Lunchbox, and they’re all small and delicately crafted. Those looking for romance will swoon with delight as they discover two lonely people can find a way to make things work. Even loveless, heartless audiences would probably have to to try really hard to appear unmoved. In one scene, Saajan notices his neighbours eating dinner, sitting around a table, passing food to one another, chattering as families do. When one of the family members – a little girl who he didn’t let into his garden to get a misdirected cricket ball – notices he’s watching, she goes and shuts the window. Later, he eats his dinner alone. It’s one of the many scenes in The Lunchbox that make you sigh with gratitude for their emotional whiplash. That’s when you realise Indian cinema is undergoing a renaissance, right in front of your eyes.
(First published in Firstpost)