Sunday, March 2, 2014
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.
Note from Filmi Girl:
I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.
If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.
xoxo Filmi Girl