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


    1. I waited till seeing the movie before I read this. I loved the movie and loved this article just as much.

      The simplicity of the storyline is amazing - just a lunchbox connecting so many people. I particularly loved the Harvard reference and how the dabbawala brings it up to say that delivery can't be wrong.

      I too don't like open endings and would like to think Saajan found Ila and they all found happiness.

      The little girl who plays Saajan's neighbor was a fascinating sub plot.

      And I totally didn't know that the actress was the model for Kumar Sanu's Tera Mera Pyar song! Amazing connection.

    2. Very nice article!!

    3. Many this is by far one of the finest analysis I have seen of the movie... Amazing to read. Wish to read more from you.


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