Saturday, April 26, 2014

Highway: Of Spiritual Sojourns



Early in Highway, a car passes through a road in a decrepit village in the outskirts of Delhi. On both sides of the road are some kitschy hmurals. On one side, there are paintings of Shivaji, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Maharana Pratap, and of a palanquin in which a queen is being carried by her minions. In contrast, on the other side, there is a painting of a woman, who is dressed in loose clothes with almost no jewelry and is trying to open her arms as if trying to break free. At first, I was completely flummoxed by the presence of this painting. It was only later when I thought about it, I understood what the painting could have meant. It could very well summarize the premise of Highway. All three of the historical figures — Shivaji, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Maharana Pratap — fought for their independence and freedom. Shivaji fought the Mughals, Rani Lakshmi Bai battled with the English, and Maharana Pratap struggled against Akbar. Veera, the central character of Highway, was fighting her inner demons for her freedom. Just like the queen, she is the daughter of a powerful man and just as the queen is being sent off, Veera is also about to get married. However, Veera does not want to be like the queen, instead she wants to be the lady in the painting on the other side — a carefree soul unbound by the traditions that make her feel claustrophobic, literally as well as figuratively. Highway is then the road that Veera needs to cross from one painting to other painting and she has to fight her battle of freedom to go there.


In an interview with a magazine, Imtiaz said that he had once made a 40-minute show for Zee TV's Rishtey. Rishtey was a weekly TV show that featured a different story every week. The episode that Imtiaz made was also called Highway, but he felt that there was much more to the story and forty minutes was too short for what he wanted to say, therefore, he made Highway. The story stayed with him for all these years and it is only now that he got a chance to make the film because he was himself the producer. He says, "I was only directing TV then, with the hope of directing films one day. So I wrote a script and tried to pitch it to producers and no one really bought into it at that point. And then I started working on my first film (Socha Na Tha, from 2005) and then tried to pitch it again and it didn’t happen again. So I did my second film (his 2007 breakthrough Jab We Met) and then pitched it again, and again it did not happen! But I always felt I wanted to make it — even if only for myself — and then now after Rockstar, my fourth film, and another year passed, this time I came back and produced it myself." Thanks to YouTube, the episode is available below. 



Imtiaz Ali's Highway is an exhilarating film. It is also a deeply spiritual film. Highway is about Veera's journey to find herself; it is about her voyage to self-realization; it is about her passage to overcome her past pain. Through Veera, Imtiaz takes us on a spiritual journey to find our own self, to let go of our inhibitions, and to become comfortable with our uncomfortable silences. Highway, then, becomes our journey. A few minutes after the film begins, Veera, who is tired by the absolute pretentiousness of the people around her, covers herself up and proceeds to open the doors of her house. She unlocks the gates of her house to run away from this farce that suffocates her, and with that opening, she also unlocks the doors of her journey. The opening of the lock by her was symbolic of the unlocking of the path to her enlightenment. From that moment, Highway carries us as well along this journey.


In one of Highway's brilliant moments, Veera tries to escape from her kidnappers. Mahabir drags her out of the salt factory and asks her to go wherever she wants to go. She runs along the railway track and reaches an absolute barren land in Sambhar Lake. She is weeping and is struggling to find as to where she should go. She falls down and tries to find her way again, but she cannot. All around her is nothingness, engulfed by the darkness of the night. She is lost and all she can do is run around in circles. This stunning sequence was referring to her inner state of helplessness. Just like the barren land amidst the pitch darkness, she is purposeless in her own life and her own soul is surrounded by the curtains of darkness and ignorance. She is as confused and she is struggling to find a way to escape from this darkness from her own inside, as she is trying to do in this very moment in the desert. She looks at the stars as if trying to find that one ray of light to guide her. At that very moment, the song Tu Kuja Man Kuja begins that validates this. It is a cry for help to God to help her find him.

 

Main kahan kahan,
Main kahan kahan,
Ghanghor hain andhiyare,
Sab roothe hai ujiyare,
Tan toote, man haare,
Kismat ke doobe taare,
Koi kiran dikhla re,
Hain soone path saare,
Main ekaaki de daya ki bheekh raja,
Kya tujhe aabhaas bhi mera.


Where, where am I,
Where, where am I,
The darkness is dense,
All lights are angry with me,
My body is breaking, and my heart loses,
The stars of my luck are drowned, 
Show me some ray of hope,
All the paths are lonely,
I am alone, give me the alms of mercy, O Lord,
Do you even have an idea of me?

Tu Kuja Man Kuja is such a soulful composition that it is hard not to be moved by it. I started wiping tears from eyes. Tu Kuja Man Kuja is actually a Persian phrase that means where are you and where I am. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has sung the Persian version in which he says that where are you, where I am, by which he says to the Prophet that you are at such a height and glory and I am nothing compared to your grandeur. It is the sheer brilliance of A.R. Rehman and Irshaad Kamil who have created a terrific composition with Sanskrit words that was also inspired by Amir Khusro's Kripa Karo Maharaj. Except the phrase, Tu Kuja Man Kuja, the entire song is in sanskritized Hindi. The song has a few lines about the path and the journeys — Hain bhay bhyankar, path mein kankar Maharaja. In fact, this was the motif in each song of Highway; there is a line about lost directions of the soul and trying to find the higher path to enlightenment. Perhaps, that explains why Imtiaz named it high-way.


After this, Veera runs back into the arms of Mahabir as if it was God's signal to her that he will guide her to the right path. It is also interesting that Mahabir's truck has the word pilot written on the driver's seat. At first, I thought it could be the Haryanvi touch that we see, but the more I think about it, the more it convinces me that perhaps it was referring to something else. A pilot flies in the high skies, isn't it then absolutely befitting to call Mahabir as the pilot who will take Veera on this flight to connect her to the higher realms of self-awareness and emancipation. 


Then, it seems that some higher cosmic energy has overtaken her that she herself cannot explain some of her actions. Like when she keeps on soliloquizing as to what is happening to her. She says, "Aisa lag raha hai main hun hi nahi yahan, jaise koi film chal rahi hai." Or later she could have easily outed herself to the policemen in Punjab when they inspect the truck, instead she hid herself. She says, "Nikal sakti thi main, what's wrong with me."  Because she is being guided by some higher entity that she is not able to behave normally.


Veera, then, begins her journey. She sees a whole new world on the road. She sees camels on the road. She sees cattle crossing the road. She sees children going to their school. She sees houses on the roads. She opens her eyes to this new reality. She opens her heart as well. Some critics have argued that the sequence where Veera talks about her abuse appears abruptly. I felt it was the right time as it was only fitting that that she open her heart as well. It also gives some insight as to why she felt trapped in her own home; why she had said earlier to Vinay, "ghutan ho rahi, sheher ke hawa me chain se saas bhi nahi le sakte, dimaag ke saare knots khul rahe hain". 



Veera's journey continues from Rajasthan to Punjab. It is here when she first starts experiencing and understanding the true meaning of freedom. She is now the Patakha Gudi. Patakha Gudi is a roaring and addictive composition with numerous spiritual references. It is splendidly choreographed where we feel Veera's first brushes with this new world. Again, the song has some words related to paths and journeys. Also, at many points in the song, she is lying on the ground and trying to look at the sky above as if trying to make some conversation with God and still trying to find answers to some of her questions.


Rasta naap rahi marjaani, 
Patthi baarish da hai paani

Later, they move to Reckong Peo in Himachal and then they trek to Aru Valley in Kashmir. In a scene, she sits on the rock and looks at the water gushing by her side. She is laughing and crying at the same time, because she found her heaven at last. She does not understand why is she reacting like that. Contrast this with the scene in Sambhar Lake where she was surrounded by an arid piece of land in pitch darkness in a desert. Here, she is surrounded by the exact opposite of that, greenery and water and the sun is shining splendidly in the mountains — the place where she felt at home. The contrast in the landscape was symbolic of the spiritual sojourn that she had undertaken. Again, it is no coincidence that this happens in Kashmir — the place that has been called as heaven on earth — Agar firdous baroye zameen ast, hami asto, hami asto hami ast. Her ecstasy is so infectious that I too wanted to go and sit by her at that moment. Then, why would she want to go back to her home in Delhi? Isn't this her dream home — a place in the mountains — that she always wanted?


That is why she comes back from Delhi — a place where her mother says to her to behave properly even when she has not completely healed, a place where her father used to say to her to be careful of the predators outside without realizing that his own relative was her daughter's predator, a place where she has to constantly bear the artifice and the hypocrisy of the society. That is why she said, "main ja chuki hun".  In the end, we see that she is reading a book called 'Women Who Run With The Wolves' by Clarissa Pinkola Est├ęs. In a literal sense, this could mean Veera running with Mahabir, who was perhaps the wolf, but if we read the plot summary, we realize that there could not be a more apt book for her to read. It says, "A gem of a book that so accurately speaks to, celebrates, and normalizes women who have gone the distance and completed the work to find happiness and healing of their souls. Clarissa's intuitive creation has freed women of the former stigmas associated with becoming a fully human woman. It captures all of the dark states of a woman's psychic soul work on, through the initiation process and finally her self-actualization. It depicts all of the cycles of a women's life that she must go through in order for her to become a fully awakened, enlightened, intuitive, and instinctual self." Veera is our wild woman who goes through the exact same steps of self-actualization. All I could do was wonder at the brilliance of the scene.


What was also so beautiful was that in the end, the song Maahi Ve tells us that she was no longer away from God. In the song, Tu Kuja Man Kuja, where she was asking as to where is she and where is God, and that she is lost. But in Maahi Ve, she sings, "tu saath hai, din raat hai, saaya saaya, maahi ve, maahi ve, meri har baat mein saath tu hai". She has finally found him and she realizes that he has been with her all this while and then she again looks at sky for a moment, smiles and silently thanks him. The distance between her and God is now nothing. It is as if we can hear her speaking these words to him.  Isn't it just amazing?  


Also, it is worth hypothesizing about her choice of profession. She opens a small business of juice products, run by women. In an earlier scene in the salt factory, she had said that everything is salty there, even sugar tastes salty. Here, she opens a juice factory which was kind of reasonable given the place. It was, perhaps, also referring to the sweet nectar or amrit, that she has finally tasted and that also brought her spiritual consciousness from the salty plains to the sweet juices.


Highway is Imtiaz's least compromised film. There are no song and dance interruptions, and he uses a minimalist style throughout the film. Even the dialogues are based more on exploring the silence of the characters than the conversation between them. It is a film that runs on the inner dialogue of the conversations and we are free to interpret their thinking. Imtiaz also fills Highway with the some spiritual significance of the different places. When Veera is being taken to Ajmer, a Haryanvi folk song called Bechein Phool Bazaara Mein plays. Then he takes us to Ajmer Sharif, one of the most holy sites in India. At one point, a music CD seller gives Mahabir's accomplice a qawali of Khwaja Garib Nawaz. Khwaja Garib Nawaz was none other than Moinuddin Chisti. The Hindi lyrics of the song Tu Kuja Man Kuja in the film was inspired by Amir Khusro's Kripa Karo Maharaj who had written this song for Khwaja Garib Nawaz only. Then, we see a song Takht Chadayo Heer by the Manganiyar singers. In Punjab, we listen to Patakha Guddi that has Punjabi lyrics. In Himachal, he takes us to Reckong Peo, where we see and hear the sound of the chants and the gongs from the monastery. Then, we finally travel with the Bakwarvala tribes to Kashmir and listen to another folk song Supaiya by Jaan Begum. Imtiaz gives us the unique flavor of each and every place in the film. In addition, he shows numerous religious figures all along. Whether Mahabir and his gang's praising slogans for Baba Kishandas and Lakkad Maharaj, or pictures of deities along the way, or shots of temples and mosques — Imtiaz wants us to dig deeper and enjoy this journey.




Highway is about Veera's journey but it is also in some ways about Mahabir's journey. The presence of the root 'veer' in both Veera and Mahabir was referring to their shared path. They share a charming relationship. I am not sure if I can call it love, in fact, the relationship between the two of them was platonic like that of a mother and a son. If Mahabir helps Veera in opening her to a new world, Veera helps him to see a new reality. Mahabir thought that only poor women are abused by rich men, but when he hears Veera's story, he saw that something like this could happen in the rich world too. Mahabir's mother was in all likelihood exploited by rich men; Veera was also abused by her own uncle. Both of them then developed a bond based on the commonality of the abuse they experienced. That also explains why he saw his own mother in Veera. When Veera sings Sooha Saha, he gets reminded of his mom. Veera is actually a mother to him. She comforts him, she sings a lullaby to him, she holds him, she scolds him, and she pampers him, like a mother does. She is the only person who made him smile for the one and the only time in the entire film. The lyrics of Sooha Saha are splendid. Sooha Saha means a red rabbit. In Aashiqui 2, Aarohi was also a mother to Rahul but that relationship had sexual charges. The absence of sex, even when Veera sleeps over Mahabir in the house in Kashmir, showed as if they had some sort of parental love. In fact, if we go into the finer nuances, Mahabir protects Veera, like a father does, from his accomplice who tries to abuse Veera. Then, their asexual relationship makes sense. What is interesting is Mahabir could also be referring to Lord Mahavira — someone who also attained enlightenment. The presence of the celibate Lord Hanuma and Baba Sukkha Nath, and the poster of 'Bin Fere Hum Tere' in Mahabir's truck was referring to some sort of material detachment. They are only partners in this journey and they have no plans to get married or to have children together. As Veera says, "bas thora aur, bas thori door tumhare saath, maine aise feel nahi kiya hai na kabhi, jaisa tumhare saath karti hun".





In a scene, Mahabir tries to go inside the house in Kashmir and then comes back. He, again, tries to go inside but he cannot. He is weeping like anything all the while remembering his mother and how he was her adored son. Veera comforts her by saying that everything will be fine. I think that was my favorite scene in the movie and I was sobbing continuously. There is something profoundly beautiful in that scene that touches you immensely. A hardened criminal crying copiously because he is missing his mother and he has lost his path.


When Mahabir was shot dead, we see in a dream sequence that he is sitting and looking at the flowing river below. Then, he starts walking on the mountain, which I felt was symbolic of his enlightenment. It was his spirit that was walking towards heaven. If Veera attained self-realization, Mahabir too attained his inner peace. He knew he was a dead man when he said that a bullet kills two people — the one gets shot and the one who shoots. He has already committed three murders, so he is a dead man and only in his death, that he can finally be at peace. That is why he died in the end and his spirit starts walking. 




As I mentioned earlier, the motif of every song was the presence of some aspect related to journey and paths. In another beautiful song Kahan Hoon Main, Veera again experiences her own journey. The landscape of the surroundings is complementing the her inner landscape. She says, 

Kahaan hoon main
Kahaan hoon main ab, 
Aahein, darr, khushi, raaste,
Kachchi baatein, sachche vaaste,
Kahin pe in sab mein,
Kahaan hun, main?


There is another song in the film, fascinatingly named as Implosive Silence. Rehman has called it as one of the most difficult songs that he had to compose. It is again talking about the conversations with the silence that Veera experiences on the top of the bus trip. Again, it is no coincidence that both of them travel on the top of the bus, referring to the higher path or the high way that they are talking to inner peace.

The last song in the album Heera is actually a compilation of three dohas of Kabir. The song is a perfect tribute to Mahabir's goodness. It is a statement on our society that just because someone is rich and well mannered, we consider him to be a nice person. But only in trying situations, we realize a person's worth. A murderer had the courtesy to protect a girl, whereas the girl's own uncle, supposedly a cultured man, did the most heinous of acts. 

Heera para bajaar mein
Raha chhaar laptaaye
Keetehi moorakh pachhe mohe
Koi parakhi liya uthaaye

While most care about how something looks, 
the intelligent ones can recognize a real gem even when it doesn't look good.


Imtiaz uses his typical style from other films here as well. Just like Love Aaj Kal begins by the song Yeh Dooriyaan where we see the journey of the characters, Highway, also begins by exactly the similar sequence where we see the picturesque journey that Imtiaz will take us. Like in Jab We Met, the most dramatic and important sequences came in the train shot, once in the beginning when Aditya was about to jump from the train and the second one when Geet was talking to Anshuman, and all we can hear is the sound of the train; in Highway too, something similar happens, there is a gun shot in the first half and the second half, and all we can hear is the sound of the gun. Also, the use of symmetry as in Jab We Met is also present here. In the first half, it is Veera who wants to run away and in the second half, it is Mahabir who wants to run away. More on Jab We Met here. If we make a graph of Imtiaz's films, his male characters are becoming more brooding — from Viren in Socha Na Tha to Aditya in Jab We Met to Jordan in Rockstar to Mahabir in Highway. Every film of Imtiaz Ali is related to journeys. All of Imtiaz's films make the point that somehow journeys are more important than the destination. Whether it is Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal, or Rockstar — all his films involve some element of a journey either travelling to different places or as is shown in Rockstar — the spiritual journey of Jordan. And then comes Highway — a fitting sequel :)

Alia Bhatt gives a spectacular performance as Veera. But I loved Randeep Hooda. He was brilliantly understated as Shahid was in Jab We Met. He brings a rawness to Mahabir and he is clearly one of our most underrated actors. The music and lyrics by AR Rehman and Irshaad Kamil, respectively, are another character of their own. One cannot be unaffected by it. Anil Mehta's cinematography is gorgeous. Some shots are a treat to the eyes and I so wish I had watched this on the big screen. Imtiaz Ali's direction is brilliant. 

However, there were some sequences which I tried really hard but could not understand them. Like the two shoes after the song Tu Kuja Man Kuja. In Patakha Guddi, we see Veera with one shoe and then later, Mahabur is tying his shoe laces. Couldn't figure out the connection. Also, the transgender consort of the gangster, what was that about? And the things hanging on the tree — I could identify only the key of the house where Veer and Mahabir had stayed.








These are some really interesting touches.


Khatra — The man



Veer


Lion and Deer — Mahabir and Veera; also Awaz Dedo :)




Ma Durga — Veera is a mother to him



Ashley Lobo as Body Language Consultant — Very Interesting

Also, Baradwaj Rangan has written the best review of Highway. He makes such excellent points that I am amazed. He says, "the love between Veera and Mahabir is also the love between two scarred people (Hooda literally carries a scar, which slices through an eyebrow) who finally luck into someone like them."  When I read his review, it made me feel that my review is totally crappy. I wish I had a little bit of depth like him. I love reading comments on his blog. This reader made such a terrific insight. Read it here. Wonderful.

Highway is an exhilarating and intoxicating film. It nudges us into a zone of our self-consciousness. Even for a sea person like me, it made me fall in love with the mountains. It gives you a certain 'high', it calls you to take your own journey, to explore yourself, to find your own freedom, to overcome your inner demons, and to find inner peace. It slowly grew on me and made me care for its characters. There are rare films that stay with you for a long time and Highway is one of them. Once you get on this Highway, nothing else matters, except yourself. When the water scene was coming, I was reminded of these beautiful lines from The Last Song of Dusk.

You should never see you life in terms of one singular existence, but try and imagine as if it were like water. See that rain? Well, our life is like the water that tumbles out of the sky and into the stream. And then some day, the stream arches in to the river. Running with a mad fever, this river heads for the ocean. Where it rests and plays. But before you know it, that same bead of water will rise up from the ocean's chest and soar into the great old sky to become the cloud it came from...and so on, life starts over and over again. Thunder unfrees the drop, lightning announces its return and the earth sighs at its inception..oh, the old sky we all are here, and always the ocean will be.

Highway brings a certain tranquility — the thing that we want so desperately — if only, temporarily for a few hours. I strongly recommend that you take it as well. 

Dialogue of the Day:


Jugni rukh pippal da hoi,
Jis nu pooje ta har koi, 
Jisdi fasal kisi na boyi,
Ghar bhi rakh sake na koi.


— Highway

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Chennai Express



I had not planned to write a review on Chennai Express, so I just storified some of my tweets and writing some quick thoughts on it. I did not understand what the hullabaloo over its criticism was. It was like any other Rohit Shetty movie, in fact, in many ways better than his other films. I enjoyed it, especially its second half. In the end, they pay a tribute to Thalaiva in Lungi Dance but I felt this movie was a tribute to Shah Rukh Khan himself. The film includes references to all his films — Dilwale Duhaniya Le Jayenge, My Name is Khan, Dil Se, Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. The message of the film when Rahul says, "Never underestimate the power of the common man", was referring to Shah Rukh himself who has made it in the Hindi film industry on his own, without any godfathers, without any dynastic linkages. It is his struggle that is shown in the film. Also, I was fascinated by his t-shirt that had a picture of Steve McQueen and his motorcycle. Steve McQueen was called as "the king of cool" and "the anti-hero" — words that we can use to describe Shah Rukh perfectly. The growing years, the habits of smoking, the belief in only yourself, the coolness quotient — the parallels between them are amazing. Do read Beth's review in the link below where she talks about this in great detail. She also says that Hum Hai Rahi Pyaar Ke from Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi was another desire of Shah Rukh to get immortalized on screen. In the scene, when he hits the goons with a shovel, it was as if he was making a statement that he too can make a 200 crore movie! No wonder, Shah Rukh went out of his way to make this film do well. 


In terms of performances, Shah Rukh hams in the first half. He was really bad in the train scenes, but once they get down at Meenama's village, we see the Shah Rukh that we love so much — self deprecating, funny, and charming. Deepika just gets better with every film and as I have said before in the Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani post, she is one of the very few actresses who look even more pretty when she cries. She brings grace when she sheds tears. Some gags are strictly okay but singing songs in an antakshari to send the message was a riot, I laughed so loud when Thangaballi also starts singing in the tune of Chammak Chalo song. The love story is so much better and works well for me. I did not like the absolute mindless violence in the end but given that it is a Rohit Shetty film, this was kind of expected. I liked it how they brought humor in the proceedings when his grandfather dies, so I was hoping that something funny would come in the end. Meenama's father doing a Amrish Puri when he leaves her hand to make her go to Rahul did not seem right. A lot of critics have called the film regressive in terms of treatment of Meenama's character. I felt that it was again all men deciding her fate as if she is some kind of object, even Rahul when he returns back to her village without even telling her. In other places, I did not notice this. In fact, Baradwaj Rangan defends her saying that Meenama is actually the hero as Rahul cannot manage even a few hours without her — the place, the language, and the subtitles. So interesting points they make, I so wish I could think this way.


Cinematography is splendid. I am not sure if it is computer generated or not. Rameshwaram is gorgeous, especially the road surrounded by water on both sides with a train passing below — beautiful. The other characters in the village are slightly stereotypical with long hair and knives but again Rangan calls it the least stereotypical of any Hindi film. His review is here

A lot of criticism was given to the fact that there were no subtitles but I felt that was clearly intentional. In the end, Rahul gives a spiel and he says he will speak from his heart and her father will listen from his heart too. If we understand these characters, then we do not need any subtitles. In fact, Chennai Express could be a great film for national integration, the merging of the north and south. Kashmir Main, Tu Kanyakumari is so beautifully choreographed, different dance forms from various parts of India — tribal, Kathakali, Bharat Natyam, and Rajasthani. I loved it.



Kashmir main tu Kanyakumari
North-South ki kat gayi dekho doori hi saari
Kashmir tu main kanyakumari
Fifty-fifty har situation mein hissedari

I do not understand what the criticism was all about. As I have always said, all of us are different. A film that I like, someone else might hate it because we have our sensibilities but disparaging someone just on a choice of a film sounds bizarre to me. I loved Saawariya, others hated it. I did not like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, everyone else loved it. This only proves we are different. Anyway, here are some tweets on Chennai Express.















Dialogue of the Day:
"Ek galat train, Chennai Express, ne mujhe sahi raasta dikha diya."
 Rahul, Chennai Express

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Lunchbox


Years ago, there used to be a show called Shrimati Sharma Na Kehti Thi that was telecast on Star Plus in which the ever so delightful Bharati Achrekar played the eponymous role of a chubby middle class housewife. Smt. Sharma was a big lover of Hindi films. The show displayed her antics related to her love for films and played a bunch of top hit songs. The interesting thing was that she was the only character in the show and all other supporting characters were present only as a voice. The neighbor who stayed upstairs with whom she chatted through her grilled window, the man who delivered milk to her, the husband with whom she talked sometimes, et al — all these other characters were faceless and present only as a voice. While watching the first scene of Ritesh Batra's delicious The Lunchbox, I was instantly reminded of the Star Plus show. It is a big coincidence that Bharti Achrekar, in a role reversal of sorts, becomes the faceless voice herself of a middle class Marathi woman — Deshpande Aunty, who lives on the floor above Ila (Nimrat Kaur), communicates through grilled windows, and exchanges spices through loosely hanging baskets. Not to forget that Deshpande Aunty, like Smt. Sharma, loves Hindi music and still buys cassettes of songs. Serendipity.


Actually, the premise of The Lunchbox itself begins with serendipity — a delivery of a lunchbox by the famous dabbawalas in Mumbai to a wrong address. As the trailer mentions, Harvard University analyzed their delivery system and concluded that just one in a million lunchboxes is ever delivered to the wrong address and that one in a millionth lunchbox gives us a wonderfully layered concoction of romance, melancholy, loneliness, friendship, and hope. I am actually somewhat surprised by the way The Lunchbox was marketed as a romantic comedy. I wouldn't call it a romantic comedy because I did not see enough comic aspect in romance, instead I found The Lunchbox to be a tale of love, longing and loneliness. There is a leitmotif of solitude that is highlighted in all the characters. Ila — a lonely housewife who is trying to bring back the spice in her loveless marriage. Saajan — a cranky widower with no friends and working in a bureaucratic office for over thirty five years, even his office neighbor does not talk to him. Aslam — an orphan who has no one whom he can call as family and adds the phrase "meri ammi kaha karti" as it brings heft to his aphorisms. Deshpande Aunty — another lonely housewife who has perhaps not spoken to her husband for more than fifteen years and cannot go out of her house to buy even her daily groceries. Deshpande Uncle — a silent man who keeps on staring at the Orient ceiling fan as if his life is in that fan and the day it stops, his life would end. (Lootera redux? — reminiscent of Pakhi and the bhil raja anecdote — Pakhi saw her life in the the leaves of the tree as if it was her tota). Ila's Husband — another silent man who keeps on watching the television or using his cellphone and as Ila says, "Deshpande uncle pankhe ko ghoorte rehte hain, husband phone ko, jaise aur kuch hai hi nahi, shayad aur kuch hai hi nahi, to kis liye jeeyen." Ila's mother and father — another lonely and desperate husband wife couple who have a lost a young son and are trying to make ends meet. Even Ila's daughter Yashvi gave a forlorn look and hardly spoke throughout the film, uncharacteristic of a child of her age. The Lunchbox is a story of these characters trying to dispel their solitude by forming bonds with people, neighbors, children, colleagues, and random strangers. Romance between Ila and Saajan is only one aspect of the film. It is as much a tale of the friendship between Aslam and Saajan. It is as much a tale of the beautiful bond that develops between Saajan and the little girl who stays opposite him. 


At one point in the film, when Ila is narrating hers as well as Deshpande Aunty's sad story, she is taking out the seeds from the karela or bitter gourd. This was as if she is trying to take out the bitterness in her own marriage. It is fascinating to note how the film shows the way of making the bitter gourd, from removing the seeds to stuffing it and then tying with a thread — how something as innocuous as a karela can make a statement on her marriage. It is these understated layers that make The Lunchbox a very discerning film. At another point, Ila asks for a spice from Deshpande Aunty to cook a special dish for her husband, as if trying to bring some spice or a new flavor in her marriage because her husband thinks too much aloo gobi causes gas, as if he is also bored of his wife. What I also liked was the way these characters preferred unconventional vegetables. Ila makes a recipe of not only karela, but she also finds a great recipe of tinde in her grandmother's diary. Saajan replies to her that his favorite vegetable is aubergine, better known as brinjal. I do not recall any film where I heard someone calling brinjal as aubergine. These vegetables, interestingly, all of them can be called as bitter yet these people love them. Perhaps a reflection of the bitter lives that they lead, and their reconciliation to the inherent sadness in it. Or it could be a statement on the somewhat unconventional choices of these people just like the highly unconventional epistolary romance of Saajan and Ila. The detailing is so stark that at one point a cooking show on the radio is being played where the radio jockey is talking about different sizes of brinjal and their price. 


In one profound scene, Saajan writes, "I felt like stopping to look at a painter's works. All his paintings are exactly the same but when you look close, real close, you can see that they are different, each slightly different from the other, a different guy there, a different man daydreaming on the bus there, a stray dog gallantly crossing the street, whatever catches the painter's fancy on that day; and in one of them I saw myself, at least I think it is me."


It was a deeply insightful scene perhaps in some ways referring to the theme that essentially we all are the same — human beings — painted by God. If only we look closely, we realize the differences between us. But these differences or better described as diversity never overshadows the ultimate vignette of us as humans. So Aslam is a Muslim, Fernandes is a Christian, and Ila is a Hindu. The differences in religion does not in any way affect their relationships. Fernandes always writes his letters in Queen's English. Ila always writes her letters in Hindi. The differences in language does not hinder their ability to understand each other — a point that was also portrayed beautifully in Queen where Rani speaks to her European friends in Hindi. Desphande Aunty can easily figure out Ila's reaction whether she is laughing, smiling or thinking without at once seeing her. Ila can advise Fernandes to quit smoking because her father is suffering from lung cancer due to smoking. These people, eventually, are linked by the bond of humanity. The sum of parts of their existence never overshadows this bond. 


Then Fernandes goes on to say, "I think we forget the things if we have no one to tell them to."  This was one of the most beautiful lines in the film and summarized the loneliness of these people. These people travel with their backs touching each other in a Mumbai train that contrasts with the emotional distance between them. The auto-rickshaw driver who meanders through the monstrous traffic of Bombay looks for chatter with his commuters. At one point, when Fernandes takes an auto-rickshaw, the driver says to him, "aap ne kuch kaha" even though he does not say anything. On TV, they show that they are discussing about Bombay being the fastest city in India, yet these people are trying to hold onto the things of the past — old diaries, old cassettes, old TV shows, old VCR tapes, Orient fans, and old radio transistors with antenna. Fernandes wishes he had kept on looking back at his wife watching the TV shows every Sunday. He then says that if Deshpande Uncle wakes up now, he would go back to the Orient fan. Even in death, it seems one has to keep travelling and never rest as there are no horizontal burial plots left, only vertical burial plots are being offered. It was heartening to see that immediately after this scene, Ila starts talking and playing with her daughter, perhaps realizing how she might have been ignoring her. That is why Fernandes and Ila form a beautiful bond where they share their deepest secrets and their memories with each other, when they do not even know each other's names. The anonymity also helps them break the barriers of communication and frees them from societal judgement. Ila would not share such talks with her mom, or even Deshpande Aunty because of the social norms which she is expected to live by. Again, I go back to the similarity to Queen. As Santosh Desai writes poignantly, "Europe lifts the expectations that accompany class and gender in Rani's local context in India, and her foreignness renders irrelevant her external appearance and behavior. She is freed even from the limitations of language; English is after all, merely another language in Paris, not an instrument of class." 

The Lunchbox also brings with it a perceptive style of film making. The film does not adopt a simplistic style of story telling and leaves a lot many things for the viewer to figure out. For example, when Fernandes goes back to the restaurant, from where he orders food, to compliment them for it, we see a number of lunchboxes with exactly the same color of the bag as the one Ila sends helping us figure out how the goof up might have happened. At another point, Aslam says about his father in law that he smiled the last during 'chaurasi ke World Cup.' Then we can totally believe that he would make mistake in accounts because World Cup happened in 'terasi.' Given the extent of detailing in the film, I think that it is somewhat deliberate. In the beginning, Ila is trying to make a spicy dish because a way to a man's heart is through her stomach. We see the aloofness of her husband and we suspect that he might be having an extramarital affair although the film does not mention it explicitly at that point. What was also peculiar was that while washing clothes, Ila always used to smell her husband's clothes giving another indication of her suspicion. The first time, she smells them and everything is fine. In a latter scene, we see she smells his shirt again and confirms what she as well as we suspected all along. In the end, she gets a call from her mother and we know what has happened. Her father has died. 


What is also worth mentioning are the linkages that the director makes between the scenes. In one scene, the young boys in the train are singing Pardesi Pardesi Jana Nahi from Raja Hindustani and immediately after that, the scene cuts to Ila where she is listening to the same song. Later, when she is listening to Mera Dil Bhi from Saajan, the scene cuts to the boys in the train who complete that song. In another scene, Ila is trying to shoo away the flies in her face, and in the next scene, Fernandes does exactly the same. In another scene, when Ila is talking about the fan, Fernandes starts looking at the fan himself. When they talk about the lady who committed suicide by jumping from the building, she takes off her jewelry like that lady did. In the scene after that, when the auto-rickshaw driver is talking about the same lady, Fernandes thinks if it could be Ila. When Ila meets her mom, we know that she will eventually accept her daughter's offer to help her. When Ila's father dies and her mom says about her own unhappiness, we see Ila in a state of reverie and we know what exactly she is thinking — what if her life also turns out like her mom. At another point in the movie, the girl who stays opposite to Fernandes shuts the window in the beginning of the film when she sees him. During the midpoint, she comes again and leaves the window half open. Finally, in the end, she lets the window remain open and even says hello to Fernandes. It was as if the window became a metaphor for the relationship she has with Fernandes. It is these finely nuanced layers that makes The Lunchbox a film to see, understand and visualize. It does not handhold the audience, leaving it to them and that explains the open ending where each viewer is free to believe whatever happened.


As mentioned earlier, The Lunchbox evokes nostalgia for the old days. As they say, the best thing about nostalgia is that it makes one feel young and old at the same time. Fernandes watches old episodes of Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. It is interesting to note that they play the title song in one of the scenes which goes by this: "Yeh jo hai zindagi, thori meethi, thori khatti, thori teekhi, thori pheekhi." Isn't it then befitting to name the film The Lunchbox that contains a box of all these flavors? Is our life any different from the various constituents of the lunchbox — a bit sugary, a bit tangy, a bit spicy, a bit bland? Maybe this was one underlying message of the film. Food is a metaphor for the love they crave.  The way Fernandes opens up after eating Ila's food, the way Aslam craves for delicious food so that he does not have to eat bananas every single say, and the way Ila's mother says she is hungry when Ila's father dies as if his death drained everything out of her and now she craves for more food. 

  
There are some other beautiful scenes, such as the one where Fernandes looks himself in the mirror and realized that he is old. 

Before I come to what I felt about the ending, I want to share a very interesting article related to Bhutan and the Gross National Happiness. It says here,"In the end it came to a conjecture where my colleague declared that depression of Sajaan and Ila is because of the society and somehow related to Gross National Happiness (GNH). The above is the display of Socialist mindset. We expect the state to solve our personal depressions. We criticize the state for our individual problems. We drag the society and state into our domestic issues. Sajaan and Ila are celluloid character and with their idiosyncratic ideas they can go ahead and live in Bhutan with the excuse of GNH but I find it really funny when normal people start equating this with real life and compare it with society."

And people accuse me of over-analyzing films :) That is why I am a strong proponent of the belief that that films could mean anything and it depends on the way one looks at it. It is a subjective interpretation and it could be different from someone else's. 


In all honesty, I am not a big fan of open endings. It puzzles me till I can some conclusive evidence of what exactly happened. In The Lunchbox, what happened during the end is again one's own view. There is a pessimistic part of me which thinks that Ila committed suicide. The way she took off her jewelry was just like the lady who committed suicide by jumping from the terrace. Also, when Fernandes says to her, "You can dream and thank you for letting me into your dream." A part of me thinks that in the end when he is coming back in train, it was perhaps a part of Ila's dream. But another part of me thinks something else. Ila says, "Kabhi kabhi galat train bhi sahi jagah pahuncha deti hai." The wrong lunchbox helped her find the right man. In the end, when Fernandes is going back to Nasik, he talks to old man in the train. He looks at the wrinkled hands of the man and perhaps that changes his mind. The train to Nasik was the wrong one and he realized what is his right destination is, and what he wants from life. Maybe that is why he comes back. Deshpande Aunty tells her she cleaned a running fan. Did that give courage to Ila to clean her own ceiling fan? Will the train reach Ila's place before she leaves? Do they go to Bhutan — both physically and metaphorically? Did they find happiness? I like to believe they did. 

And yes, I would post one of my favorite songs from the years of my growing up featuring the terrific Nimrat Kaur — Tera Mera Pyar by Kumar Sanu  :)


Dialogue of the day:
"There are too many people, everyone wants what the other has."
— Fernandes, The Lunhbox