Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Lunchbox: A wonderful meal

The Lunchbox (2013) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG, for no useful reason, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

Movie buffs live for this moment: the thrill of discovery, striking when you least expect it.

The Lunchbox, an impressively accomplished feature debut for writer/director Ritesh Batra, is a bittersweet romantic charmer: by turns droll, sensitive and achingly poignant. And although we’re thoroughly absorbed by the core story involving two lonely people, Batra also delivers a perceptive analysis of big-city Mumbai, as it struggles at a cultural crossroads sparked by the age-old clash between tradition and progress.

On top of which, we get some astute social commentary on the nature of love, the sad fate of those who settle, and the possibly greater emotional rewards for those who defy expectations and, well, take an impulsive plunge.

Not bad, for a 104-minute film that spends almost all of its time with just three characters.

Batra’s narrative also is a cinematic valentine to the grand tradition of epistolary novels, ranging from classics such as Fanny Hill and Dracula, to more modern examples such as The Color Purple and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Indeed, I frequently was reminded of Helene Hanff’s marvelous 1970 book, 84, Charing Cross Road, for reasons that I can’t specify without spoiling some of the delights to be found in Batra’s film.

And, finally, mention must be made of the wholly immersive performances from the excellent cast, starting with veteran Indian actor Irrfan Khan, who seems everywhere these days. Aside from a busy schedule in his native country, American audiences will recognize him from Slumdog Millionaire and The Amazing Spider-Man; he also was the best part of Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Lifeof Pi, as the adult Pi Patel.

He stars here as Saajan Fernandes, a government accountant who has toiled for 35 years in an employee- and paper-strewn office that could, in different hands, be the subject of biting satire. But Batra’s touch is resolutely serious, his approach matter-of-fact. We’ve absolutely no doubt that scores of such offices exist throughout Mumbai, equally staffed (stuffed?) with quiet men who juggle facts and figures, struggling with pencil, ink and hand calculators, nary a computer to be seen.

Saajan is weeks from retirement, and therefore saddled with the responsibility of training his excitable young replacement: Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), about whom, more in a moment.

Batra’s plot is driven by his story’s fourth primary “character,” the astonishing Mumbai tradition orchestrated daily by the dabbawallahs, a community of roughly 5,000 deliverymen who ferry between 175,000 and 200,000 hot meals from the kitchens of housewives to the offices of their husbands. The numbers are staggering, the process nothing short of amazing, as these lunches cross the city via bicycle, bus and train ... even during monsoons.

The positions are hereditary, dating back some 130 years, and even more impressive for the fact that almost all dabbawallahs are illiterate. The meals reach their proper destinations via a complex code of colors and symbols: a system that even led to a flattering 2010 study by the Harvard Business School ... a point of pride mentioned by one dabbawallah, at a key moment in this story.

And, just as the dabbawallahs move lunchboxes from one end of the massive city to the other, Mumbai’s crowded public transport system — those same buses and trains — ferry millions from their homes to their work places each day, and then back again. The trips are crowded, noisy and vibrant with an energy that leaps off the screen: a wild cacophony of activity often punctuated by song, whether from the children who weave their way through a forest of adult legs while making music, or from the dabbawallahs who end each exhausting shift with an enthusiastic chant.

Thus, Saajan travels daily from his enclosed home in the old Christian enclave of Ranwar Village, Bandra. He keeps himself to himself, barricaded behind the iron gate and walled fence that isolate him from the cheerful children who play in the street.

Saajan isn’t unkind; he’s merely withdrawn and deeply lonely, still unable to navigate social contact after the death of his beloved wife. He thus regards Shaikh’s cheerful eagerness with genuine bewilderment, and these early expressions on Khan’s face are priceless ... but also heartbreaking. Saajan believes that he wishes to be left alone, but he’s fooling himself; we therefore know that this story will focus on whether, and how, this man’s icy exterior can be made to thaw.

But Saajan isn’t this saga’s only unhappy soul. Elsewhere, in the conservative middle-class Hindu community of Kandivili, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) has been taking cooking lessons from the “Auntie” who lives upstairs; the two women frequently exchange foodstuffs via a roped basket raised and lowered between their kitchen windows. Ila’s husband, Rajeev (Nakul Vaid), has been distant of late; with Auntie’s noisy encouragement, the young wife hopes that spicing up his lunches will prompt a favorable response.

Except that, due to a rare error by the dabbawallahs, Ila’s carefully prepared meal winds up on Saajan’s desk. This marvelous scene owes its dramatic — and amusing — heft to Khan’s subtle acting: We realize that Saajan is puzzled by the very appearance of this lunchbox, with its four nested, round metal containers that clearly aren’t what he expects from his usual lunch service. But he can’t ignore the tempting aromas that emanate from this unexpected gift, and his enjoyment of the food is intense.

This is, without question, a fresh entry in the short list of cinema’s all-time most enticing meals, and their consumption.

Back at Ila’s home, she figures things out pretty quickly once her husband fails to acknowledge the meal, and also the next day, when Saajan sends a short note to his anonymous benefactor. Because that’s the twist: The dabbawallah error is ongoing, allowing an increasingly personal exchange of notes between Ila and Saajan.

And it seems perfectly natural, since idiosyncratic human nature often prompts us to confess intimate details to total strangers: private laments, hopes and fears that (sadly) we rarely share with the people we know.

And, so, both Saajan and Ila soon look forward to this treasured routine each day, as a fresh note is discovered tucked within one of the round tins, this newest message eagerly devoured during a private moment. Ila has the benefit of an empty apartment and no shortage of quiet time; indeed, by tradition, she enjoys very little contact with the outside world, and has no friends aside from her upstairs Auntie (a character whom, in the clever mode of TV sitcoms such as Rhoda and Home Improvement, is heard but never seen).

Saajan, in contrast, always receives his notes in the noisy bustle of his office cafeteria, and Khan’s increasingly furtive glances are to die for ... particularly once the intrusive Shaikh successfully pushes past the older man’s comfort zone.

In both cases, Batra cleverly dials down his bustling soundtrack’s ambient street and office noises, allowing each character to narrate each new note’s contents to its recipient.

Kaur is a newcomer, with only a few earlier films to her credit, but she’s destined for greatness; Batra coaxes a tragic portrait of resigned misery from this young actress. We wonder about the origins of Ila’s match with the indifferent Rajeev, who spends every moment at home watching TV or buried within his cell phone; was this an arranged marriage? However they began as a couple, Rajeev no longer is present emotionally, if he ever was.

Ila’s options aren’t merely limited; they’re nonexistent. Once upon a time, she might have drawn comfort from time spent with their adorable young daughter, Yashvi (Yashvi Puneet Nagar, cute as a bug). But even that bond no longer is sufficient.

Additionally, Ila’s world view is restricted to other emotionally stifling relationships: her mother (Lillete Dubey), scrambling for money to pay for the medication needed to keep Ila’s father alive; and the upstairs Auntie, who has spent years caring for an infirm husband. Is this really all the future has to offer?

The irrepressible Shaikh, in great contrast, has taken an entirely different approach to life, and love: a renegade act that, when revealed, prompts a gasp of disbelief from us, having by now become so immersed in the unyielding tradition by which Mumbai society operates.

Shaikh is a puzzle, and Batra keeps us guessing. Siddiqui plays this animated, borderline sycophantic apprentice with an intensity that initially strikes us (and Saajan) as off-putting; we can’t help wondering what this young man is up to. But however droll the gradually revealed details of Shaikh’s life and interests, we’re occasionally brought up short by moments of candor that Siddiqui sells via the more serious light that appears in his eyes: brief emotional hiccups at odds with his typical ear-splitting grin.

I love well-made foreign films for their cinematic snapshots of cultures that are completely new to me. Although I’d heard of dabbawallah service by reputation, Batra brings it to glorious life on the screen, along with the lively intensity of the Mumbai neighborhoods where his characters live and work (nice work throughout by cinematographer Michael Simmonds). I’m also fascinated by the way these people slide between Hindi and English, suggesting that this blend has become its own polyglot language.

Mostly, though, I remain entranced by the way Batra has blended all these elements, from the city itself; to the three characters whose fates are thoroughly engrossing, from start to finish; and to his deft touch with little details, such as Saajan’s view of his immediate neighbors each evening, as they enjoy a raucous yet obviously loving supper.

This one’s a little treasure.

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