Thursday, April 02, 2015

Savoring "The Lunchbox"

The Lunchbox” is a breakthrough film for India because it steers clear of the usual showstopper musical numbers and emoting melodrama popular in Bollywood productions. Instead, it delivers a taste of bitter-sweet “slice of life,” spiced with pinches of humor. Multiple layers are delivered in the tiffin lunchbox.

Director/Writer Ritesh Batra started off doing research for a documentary on the Babbawala, the 125 year-old tradition of delivering tiffin lunches from homes and restaurants to the work place. The lunchboxes represent the countless generic Mumbia workers who cram onto trains to commute to their jobs every day. In fact, the lunchboxes make the same commute. Famous for its efficiency, it is said that only one in a million lunchboxes is ever lost. That story is told in, “The Lunchbox.”

Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a lonely housewife, takes her auntie’s advice and recipe (shouted down from the apartment above) to win her husband’s love by sending a very special meal in his lunchbox. When it comes back empty, Ila anxiously awaits his return. When he says that it was OK, that the cauliflower was very good; she realizes that someone else has eaten the meal and sends a note thanking the stranger for the compliment of “licking it clean.” She also sends along her husband’s favorite dish. The lunchbox is delivered to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a grouchy widower, who only wants to be left alone until his imminent retirement. He uses the excuse of going to lunch to avoid teaching his eager protégé (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). The lunchbox is returned empty with a note saying only that there was too much salt. Auntie (the voice of Bharatic Achekar) isn’t having any of his rudeness, and sends down a basket full of hot chilis to include in the next day’s lunch.

Auntie’s little lesson succeeds in teaching him empathy for others. To relieve his burning mouth, Saajan buys a banana from a street vendor and notices that other employees can only afford a banana for lunch. When he sees that his pesky protégé only has a banana and apple for lunch, he ends up sharing his precious lunch with him.

Is it a miracle or just an error that the lunchbox was delivered to the wrong address? It is certainly a miracle that these two lonely people, lost in the modern world, connect over a good meal and details of their lives scribbled on scraps of paper. The director sets up hints of a miracle with magic realistic flourishes - like the fly that connects their two worlds. In the scene transition, the director cuts from Saajan swatting the pesky fly in the marketplace to Ila swatting one at home.

This same device is used with ceiling fans. Ila tells how Auntie’s husband had been in a coma for 15 years. One day he woke up and started staring at the oriental ceiling fan. Ever since he has stared at that fan all day, every day. He wakes up in the morning and stares at the fan. One day the power goes off causing the fan to stop and uncle’s heart slowed down. Auntie believes it is the fan that keeps him alive, so she has a generator installed that day. As Saajan reads about it, the power goes off at work and all the ceiling fans stop. It is a shared metaphor for being trapped in a meaningless existence. “Uncle Deshpande stares at his fan. My husband stares at his phone as if nothing else exists. Maybe nothing else does.” Saajan writes back that things have changed since her uncle was a worker. “Everyone works so they can have what everyone else does. If Mr. Deshpande woke up and went to work these days, he would go back to his ceiling fan.” 

The rush-hour commute represents how people are too busy working to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Their motivation flashes by on billboards – like the billboard that honors those who excel at the university. But if you pause to look closer, you will see that the honorees don’t look happy. Everyday, the lunchboxes commute like the workers. This lunchtime ritual is the highlight of their day when workers get a taste of home or at least of the old ways. The miraculous appearance of that special lunch nudges Saajan out of his solitude. His protégé’s expression of pleasure for the wonderful lunches teaches Saajan to appreciate them too. During the crowded train commute, the protégé finds a way to enjoy more time with his girlfriend by cutting the vegetables for their dinner.

When things become unbearable with her distant husband, Ila writes Saajan about moving to a place her daughter heard of in school. She shares her fantasy with Saajan. “In Bhutan everyone is happy. They don’t have Gross Domestic Product, only Gross National Happiness.” Saajan tells his protégé that he is thinking of going to Bhutan, rather than the retirement town of Nasik. His protégé responds that he has only been to Saudi Arabia, but, “Sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right station.”

This time the wrong train delivered “The Lunchbox” to the right station. And it was delicious. 

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

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