Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Lunchbox or "Irrfan Gets His Groove Back."

After what feels like at least a year’s worth of hype in the English-language Indian press, The Lunchbox is finally getting an American release. While it’s not the type of film I’m generally interested in watching, I have to admit that I was curious to see the film that was so amazing it inspired Anurag Kashyap to flounce from social media when it didn’t get sent to the Oscars. Both the trailer and the reviews I’ve read seemed to suggest that The Lunchbox was going to be generic World Cinema (capital ‘w,’ capital ‘c’), the type of film that people who claim to love foreign films enjoy watching.

I was not wrong.

Filmi Girl’s short take is: The Lunchbox is a perfectly fine piece of World Cinema and I suspect that if you are the type of person who enjoyed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, you will also enjoy this film. Also, it will make you hungry.

The central conceit of the film is that one of Mumbai’s famous dabbawallas makes a mistake in delivery, routing housewife Ila’s (Nimrat Kaur) tiffin (the titular lunchbox) to cranky, old Mr. Fernandes (Irrfan) instead of to her husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid). Neither Mr. Fernandes nor Ila correct the mistake and instead the two strike up a friendship through letters exchanged in the tiffin. Although the film is advertised as a romance of sorts, the story is really more about Mr. Fernandes’s mid-life crisis and his rediscovery of life. One doesn’t usually describe a late-middle aged man as ‘blossoming’ but Irrfan makes a pretty good case for the word as his Mr. Fernandes stops yelling at the neighborhood children to stay off his lawn and begins waving hello to them instead.
And the letters from Ila are only half of Mr. Fernandes’s re-awakening. He is also ‘adopted’ by an optimistic, young striver named Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, in a thankless role) who refuses to take Mr. Fernandes’s passive-aggressive behavior for the “leave me alone” that it is.

Meanwhile, Ila remains trapped in a nightmare directly out of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and spends the entire film looking as if she’s one step away from walking off the ledge of a very tall building to the sweet release of death. She has nothing to live for beyond pleasing the men in her life and, in the end, they don’t need her.

Director Ritesh Batra does a fine job depicting Mr. Fernandes’s feelings of aloneness in the center of bustling Mumbai. Despite scenes crowded with people, Irrfan somehow remains aloof, not part of them. And the silence of the soundtrack added to the isolation. There were only one or two places where a sugary background score intruded on Mr. Fernandes’s moping.

All-in-all, I was left with three thoughts. The first was, “Now I’m hungry” because the food looks delicious. The second was just how very World Cinema The Lunchbox was. Except for the use of the dabbawallas as a plot device, the film could have been set anywhere and made by anybody: a West Virginia housewife sending lunch to the wrong coal miner, a Japanese housewife sending lunch to the wrong salaryman, any unhappy housewife and any older man in need of ‘blossoming.’ Not that there is anything wrong with the World Cinema style but it does leave me missing the strong flavors of films made for local audiences. Directors like Bala or even Anurag Kashyap before he went global.

Let me rephrase: there’s nothing wrong with the style, per se, but we’re doing the art of filmmaking a disservice if we don’t recognize World Cinema for the rarified genre that it is. I found myself substituting ‘cinema’ for ‘literature’ in this brilliant editorial from N+1 last year:

“Today’s World Lit is more like a Davos summit where experts, national delegates, and celebrities discuss, calmly and collegially, between sips of bottled water, the terrific problems of a humanity whose predicament they appear to have escaped.”

And that leads to my my final thought on The Lunchbox: it does seem like an odd choice for the Bollywood industry to be trumpeting as the “future of Indian cinema,” when so much of it is mired in the nostalgia of a middle-aged man and the norms of the Western Academy. Is the future looking backwards and Westward? I hope not.


Archee ologist said...

Nice review FG!

MY thoughts wandered to Siddiqui and then to Kahanii. Would you say that Kahani was also a movie of the World Cinema genre? It could be set in any claustrophoic city- a pregnant woman looking for her husband in a strange city. That movie too did not have the flavour of traditional Bollywood. I am sure you have written about it somewhere, but would love your take?

I must add, though, the critics such as Anupama Chopra who loved Lunchbox, also root for the bollywood genre and would never compromise with the Bombay sensibilities of cinema. This would be a world where one could eat a French food for lunch and pao bhaji for snack and sushi for dinner and enjoy it all. :-)

Danny Bowes said...

Thanks for perfectly articulating why I didn't end up covering this picture.

Danny Bowes said...

(note, that was not meant to sound as mean as it may have)

Filmi Girl said...

@Archee I'd argue that Kahaani could have been set anywhere but Sujoy does a good job of incorporating the feel of the city into the film. And I bet using having exotic "Calcutta" as the backdrop probably helped disorient Hindi audiences so he could misdirect them easier… we're so busy looking around that we don't notice what's right under (Vidya's) nose. XD

But I agree you can have all types of films!! I just wish the people pushing Lunchbox as Good Cinema understood that, too.

(I checked my Kahaani review and I ramble about it pretentiously for a while if you want to read:

@Danny Right? It's not a bad film by any means. It's perfectly fine but… not my style. I've never been big on World Cinema.

Moimeme said...

OK, now that you've seen it, I can unburden myself. :)

The first thing that struck me when watching the film was that the entire story is based on the premise that the Mumbai dabbawallahs, who are world famous for *having never made a mistake in their entire 30 some years of being in business*, make a wrong delivery -- that too, not just once, but repeatedly. You know how Indian critics (and others from the industry) regularly deride various films (e.g., Slumdog Millionaire, most of Satyajit Ray's works) for only showing poverty in India instead of showing off things about India to be proud of? So here's a film that takes one legitimate thing to be proud of in India and deliberately (and falsely) shows it in a poor light. And this never bothered anybody!

Leaving that aside (even though it struck me as a clumsy plot device), I never got any sense of any of the characters as people. I never saw the Betty Friedan like life that you saw for Ila, so that when she makes her final momentous decision, it felt like a tacked on ending, an artificial blow for "feminism." I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the ending, just that it needed more groundwork to be laid for it to make sense. The other characters, too, seemed to be too calculatedly "eccentric", like the neighbor upstairs.

One more thing about the film that really grated on me was the use of language -- why does Irrfan's character always write his notes in English, when the original note to him (and subsequent ones from Ila) were always in Hindi? It's rude apart from anything else -- the first time, he doesn't have any reason to think that the person to whom he's writing would even be able to read an English note. And obviously he has no problem reading or speaking Hindi. So why? I went through all kinds of mental contortions trying to come up with an explanation that would make sense in the context of the story, only to finally conclude that the entire script was probably originally written in English (highly likely since it was developed at a Sundance scriptwriting workshop), and they then translated just enough of it to qualify as a "foreign language" film, and didn't bother with the rest.

It's interesting that Archee mentioned Kahani, because I just recently saw that, and, while I felt that a lot of its hype was because it deliberately followed a Hollywood style of direction, I also thought that it made for a better Oscar entry than The Lunchbox. Besides, the ending of Kahani deliberately evoked some very Indian themes and traditions, though that part, too, felt tacked on to me.

In both, I thought Nawazuddin Siddiqui was brilliant (especially in Kahani). At this point I find him a more interesting actor than Irrfan, whose acting here felt a little repetitive.

Do read that link I posted yesterday regarding the Lunchbox.

Filmi Girl said...

@moimeme Yes! I'm hoping Asim wants to do a podcast for this one because there is a lot to discuss. I didn't want to drone on about things in my post because people who may not have seen the film yet would be reading and it wouldn't make sense to them.

But just to pick up on a few of your points:

1. The lack of explanation other than 'the bags looked the same' for the misdelivery bothered me, too. It seemed very artificial combined with the constant hammering in of "wrong train, right destination." Like, I get it, Ritesh. I get your point.

2. Ila and the ending. Perhaps I was just feeling melancholy but I couldn't help reading the "Bhutan" as a metaphor for suicide. To me, she just seemed desperately unhappy the entire film and certainly in the mindset to follow through on the earlier foreshadowing of suicide. AND THEN it angered me that Irrfan was cheerfully saying hello to children like all of Ila's pain was justified if this cranky guy gets to smile. I felt for Ila but I think Ritesh and whoever else worked on the script really had no understanding of her story at all and didn't most of her 'character' comes from Nimrat's acting.

3. Language. I wasn't overly impressed with the dialogues and I think the subtitling was lazy. The use of English was odd, I agree. AND I agree on your theories behind it.

4. Nawaz and his character were interesting! His performance was very layered and I enjoyed it immensely. I also agree that Irrfan seemed repetitive… and I found Mr. Fernandes really unsympathetic. That passive-aggressive move with the 4:45 business really irked me and then leaving Ila hanging in the cafe. I wanted somebody to give him a tight slap but what can you do in a film that is basically the World Cinema version of one of those Imran Khan rom-coms.

Oh!! I'll check the link. It was on Satyamshot, right? If this film is the 'future' of Hindi films, I'm sticking with re-watching Maine Pyar Kiya. Now there is a good movie.

Moimeme said...

@FG -- Can't go wrong watching MPK anyday! :)

BTW, I saw Krrish 3 yesterday and loved it. Now there's a film with Indian sensibilities all the way with "world class" technology (well, it's getting there). That's the direction I'd want Indian films to go -- just like Endhiran or Eega. Oops, didn't mean to say science fiction/fantasy is the only way to go. OK, if not SF, then definitely MPK is the way to go. One of the things I like best about MPK and HAHK is the realistic portrayal of how love develops in an Indian context, without any artificial gimmicks.

Yes, the link was to Satyamshot -- you should be able to find the post easily even without the link.

Moimeme said...

I agree that Ila's role was severely underwritten and almost all of its impact comes from Nimrat's acting.

LOL, I may not be the biggest fan of The Lunchbox, but to compare it to an Imran Khan romcom seems too harsh. :) At the least, Irrfan can act, unlike Imran. :)

Yunus Perveez said...

I'd love to do a podcast if I can find a print in a timely manner...

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