<Review by: Sailesh Ghelani>
Directed by Ritesh Batra. Starring Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Denzil Smith, Bharati Achrekar, Nakul Vaid, Yashvi Puneet Nagar, Lillete Dubey
This much-ballyhooed film that has been denied a nod to try out for the Oscars by the Film Federation of India (The Good Road got it instead) is a ray of sunshine for sure. But I’m pretty confident it’s not the best thing ever!
It’s a simple enough story told with subtle but gigantic emotions. An everyday common ‘aam-admi’ named Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan) who works as an insurance claims adjuster in a government organisation has nothing left in his life.
Close to retirement, a widower living alone with only his wife’s memories for company, Fernandez is a grouchy man, made this way more by circumstance than choice.
Then one day the dabbawala (one of many who miraculously deliver thousands of lunchboxes to the right offices everyday) gets Ila’s dabba on to Fernandez’s table. But he’s not her husband. At first the wonderful aromas wafting from the tiffin take him aback. He takes a small bite and his face changes. His monotonous life seems a bit more meaningful. Such is the power of food!
The dabba returns to Ila’s home but she soon realises her straying husband has no idea of her wonderful preparations and recipes that she’s been getting from her unseen neighbour ‘aunty’ Mrs Deshpande (voice of Bharati Achrekar). Intrigued, Ila sends her mystery patron a note and thus begins a back and forth of delightful food and pen pal foreplay.
Debut director Ritesh Batra who has also written the film (with some Hindi dialogue done by Nimrat Kaur according to the credits) has wonderfully captured the life of a regular person surviving the drudgery of living in a city like Mumbai with its packed commuter trains, traffic jams and lonely living.
The scenes flip flop between the office and the home. There’s not much dialogue only actions and reflections that are beautifully portrayed by Irrfan and Ila. Of course you wonder why this housewife would choose to correspond with a man she’s never met who is eating from the lunchbox meant for her husband but then you also understand her situation and mindset. And Ila manages to capture that conflict superbly with her eyes.
And though Mumbai city has been captured nicely I did find it a bit odd to see all those people at the government office working so diligently without even sitting and gossiping with each other!
The banter between Irrfan and Nawazuddin, who is meant to learn from Fernandez before he retires, makes for some wonderfully funny and sometimes poignant moments. And of course there are several times when just a facial expression does the trick to make you laugh, which you will do several times during the film.
I did find the whole angle with Ila and her mother (Lilette Dubey) a bit unnecessary and felt like it made the film drag a bit though.
The Lunchbox is charming, full of good moments, subtle but sharp acting and is crisply made. Is it the greatest film ever? Certainly not. If we think this then we simply acknowledge (rightly so) how very bad our ‘commercial’ cinema is and in comparison this is a league ahead. Totally. But on an international scale, The Lunchbox would feature as a light-hearted cute little slice of life film and that would be that.
As compared to most of our ‘actors’ in countless slapstick comedies and yet ‘another love story’, of course Irrfan, Nawazuddin and Ila stand tall. But in my opinion, theirs is simply the standard that should be followed by all in ‘Bollywood’ who are just not upto the standard.
Which is why I feel that the self-proclaimed ‘promoters’ (for whatever reasons they have, and yes, they do have their reasons) of these wonderful little films should take a step back and think of all the other great films they’ve seen and weigh carefully their judgments and proclamations of grandeur on social media. We all know very well the only reason we go gaga at the slightest bit of brilliance in a film here is because of the sheer dearth of quality cinema produced by us.
Yes you must say it’s good, but please don’t say it’s great. That will just stunt us at that level and we must keep pushing those standards, considering how low they are.
PS: Both The Lunchbox and Qissa were screened at the Toronto International Film Festival 2013 but it was Qissa that won the NETPAC Award for World or International Asian Film Premiere.