The Lunchbox

Posted on September 30, 2013

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The near-universal critical acclaim and love for Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox has me somewhat bewildered. This isn’t a great film, or even a very good film, and while there are some truly deft touches, it is a film that is frustratingly blind to its own potential and is happy to fall back on the conventional when it is convenient.

Halfway through the film, Saajan, in one of his notes, says that we forget things if we have no one to tell them to. It reminded me of another similar brilliant observation from the film Shall We Dance. In that film, Susan Sarandon’s character believes that people marry because we desire a witness to our lives. The exchange of notes fulfills that desire. So it is understandable why Ila abruptly and without much of a preamble starts sharing details of her life with a complete stranger, forcing Saajan to open up and share his life with her as well. But this deep need and comfort in documenting and sharing our lives, this at once tenuous and profound bond between the two is completely undone when the film insists that there be a romance and that the two meet and have a future together. Isn’t the almost cosmic conspiracy of the misdelivered lunchbox and the subsequent act of reaching out, of receiving human sympathy, of having someone know about your life and your dreams and your fears far more profound and far more special than a conventional romance? When Ila says that we can write whatever we feel like in these letters, she unknowingly points out one of the secret pleasures and possibilities of their correspondence. The act of writing gives them the space and freedom to express themselves and, more importantly, to imagine and to construct themselves in ways that is simply not possible in real life. But in the very next sentence, Ila asks Saajan to meet her, thereby, allowing real life to intrude into the relationship and seeking to terminate the correspondence and replace it with something more “real”. The correspondence between them rather than being an end in itself is reduced to a means to an end. And what’s worse is that the subsequent romance between them is utterly unbelievable and contrived (not to mention, the convenience of the husband’s affair, which I found to be a rather cheap detail and justification).

But for all its shortcomings, there are some lovely examples of visual echoing where the film equates Saajan with the titular lunchbox. When Ila expresses her desire to move to Bhutan, Saajan asks her if he can join her. It’s a bold question, freeing Saajan from the past and allowing him to imagine a future. This feeling of new-found freedom is captured and condensed in the poetic shot of the lunchbox containing the question being taken back to Ila’s house. The lunchbox sits in the corner of the trolley as it is wheeled on the roads of Mumbai; the sun shines brightly on its green cover and its cloth handle flutters and dances in the wind. Ila responds to Saajan’s question with a question of her own: what’s his name. The answer is not revealed to us immediately and while I thought Ila asking Auntie to play songs from the film Saajan and the same song being sung by kids on the local train were a little too precious, we see Saajan listening to the kids sing but on this particular ride, instead of being crammed inside the train compartment with other commuters, as he is usually filmed, he is leaning out of the train and enjoying the wind in his hair.lunchbox1

In the film’s final scene, we again see this visual echoing. Saajan’s journey to Ila’s house mirrors that first fateful journey of the lunchbox which set everything in motion, with the dabbawallas once again singing the tukaram bhajan, except this time, instead of the empty lunchbox, they are delivering Saajan to Ila’s doorstep.

Another scene I found interesting, not for the mirroring (which I didn’t think was successful in this instance) but for the conversational dynamics, takes place between Ila and her mother. Ila and her mother sit side by side discussing the cost of the father’s treatment. Next to them, on the floor, Ila’s daughter is playing with her doll. As the conversation ends, Ila realizes that she has been very skillful manipulated by her mother into giving money for the treatment. Ila looks at her daughter playing with the doll and you know right away that she feels very much like the helpless doll that her daughter is manipulating into a desired position. The shot of the daughter is not entirely necessary to make the point, especially as it comes after a close-up of Ila (a superb Nimrat Kaur, it must be noted) as she registers what just happened but it is interesting nonetheless.

Of the three characters, I thought Saajan was a lot more interesting and had a well-developed sense of humor and a flair for theatrics than what Irrfan Khan’s performance suggests. To me, his initial terse, one-line notes to Ila complaining about the food were intentionally funny rather than evidence of Saajan’s reserved nature. Similarly, when Saajan threatens to chase the kids down the street, he was clearly playing the part of a stern next-door uncle but Irrfan played it straight as if Saajan really meant it. Another hilarious example of his humor is when Saajan narrates how once when he was traveling by the local train, he thought an old woman was touching him “down there,” but later realizes that what he felt was the corner of a file bag that a fellow passenger was carrying. Funny as this incident may be, what is truly amusing is that Saajan recounts it in response to Ila’s musing about suicide and to assure her that things are never as bad as they seem to be!

I thought there was a real opportunity to do something interesting but Irrfan’s interpretation of Saajan is very safe and conventional and the actual performance isn’t very consistent either. Irrfan seemed to swing between overdoing the fussy, precise government employee; the mild, slightly bent, tired commuter; and the lonely widower smoking and lounging in his balcony. The three never come together in his performance—of course, there is always the possibility that it was a deliberate acting decision by Irrfan to play Saajan as a fragmented individual (there is enough control in his performance to suggest that he knew what he was doing and the effect he was going after)—but whatever the case may be, it simply didn’t work for me.

At its heart, the Lunchbox is a conflicted film. On one hand, it wants the comfort of a traditional, sellable storyline but on the other, it doesn’t want to get too drawn into the details and implications of the romantic relationship, which makes the whole relationship and ultimately, the film unconvincing. It would have been a much more effective film had it been a simple love story. All the bits about urban loneliness and alienation was layered on to the material but is not organic to it. The reason for Saajan and Ila’s unhappiness and loneliness is that they didn’t have anyone to love them. But Batra seems to think that this form of loneliness isn’t good or profound enough and therefore, tries to make it more than that and denies the love story space in his narrative. Instead of developing and exploring the love story, which I suspect Batra thought would be too conventional (never mind that the final 20 mins are as hokey as it can get), he demands that we accept, without any evidence, that they have fallen in love and want to share a future together.

The decision to not show their final meeting stems from the same impulse, or more precisely, fear of the conventional and not surprisingly, the ending doesn’t entirely work. After putting Ila and Saajan through the conventional romantic hurdles and upping the emotional stakes (Saajan feels he is too old for Ila and doesn’t meet her—a point that is needlessly rubbed in when a young man offers Saajan a seat in the train—Ila’s realization that if she doesn’t find Saajan she will be doomed to a fate similar to her mother’s, their missed encounter, Saajan undergoing a similar realization and coming back to find Ila), the film denies us the satisfaction of seeing the two finally meet each other, never mind whether they decide to go to Bhutan or not. All of which is a shame because the final scene is wonderful. As I mentioned earlier, it beautifully echoes the beginning of the film and provides poetic closure. That first dabba sent by Ila is a plea, almost a prayer, which she entrusts to the dabbawallas and at the end of the film, the dabbawallas bring with them the answer to her prayers. But it is all those missed encounters and the build up to the scene that makes what would otherwise be a perfect ending appear abrupt and unsatisfactory.

I wish the film had fully and truly embraced its traditional narrative impulses. We would have then got an interesting romantic film: one that engages with both the exhilaration and dilemmas of an unlikely relationship in a thoughtful and lyrical manner.

EDIT: I elaborated upon a few things in the review a couple of weeks after it was first published.

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Posted in: Reviews