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TIFF Review: ‘The Lunchbox’ A Charming, Moving Cinematic Takeout Treat
BY KEVIN JAGERNAUTH
The staple of any good rom-com is an original, clever meet-cute, and writer/director Ritesh Batra certainly has a good one for his feature debut “The Lunchbox.” The missed connection in this picture that winds up bringing two strangers into each other’s orbit is a mix-up involving the delivery of the titular lunchbox. It’s a familiar practice in India, with housewives (and restaurants) preparing hot meals in the morning, and through a rather impressive system of trains and rickshaws, they get delivered to their husbands at the office, with nary a mistake. At least until Ila’s (Nimrat Kaur) steel, segmented canister of naan and curry winds up on the desk of Saajan (Irrfan Khan). And while you might think you can predict what happens next, Batra takes this rather charming set-up and quietly unfolds a film that is by turns both funny and moving, and a potent reflection on life’s disappointments and the strength required to move past them.
For Ila, she’s stuck in a marriage that has stagnated into a familiar, dull routine, with her husband (Nakul Vaid) all but ignoring her presence. Her life, such as it is, now revolves around her young daughter, while the Auntie who lives upstairs—never seen, but heard—offers advice, recipes and spices. Hoping that the way to her husband’s heart again is through his stomach, Ila puts all her effort into his lunches, but that effort instead wakes up Saajan from his slumber of solitude. At the first taste of Ila’s food, Saajan is more than happy to eat this unintended meal, a pleasant break from the mediocrity served by his regular restaurant. But each day, a new meal arrives from Ila and Saajan’s world—which doesn’t expand far beyond the office and his private, lonely life at home—at once opens to the tantalizing potential of possibility. The pair start to exchange notes as the thermos-like lunchbox goes back and forth—at first just about the food—but soon they are sharing with each other their deepest stories and secrets that they are unable to share with anyone else.
Ila is burdened by the thought her husband is having an affair, while also worrying taking care of her parents, a job that would normally fall to the son of the family, except that he has long since passed. As for Saajan, he’s widowed, facing retirement and generally keeps to his curmudgeonly self. Even the kids on his street know he’s not likely to get any balls that fall into his yard. But it’s not just Ila who is softly forced into his tightly controlled sphere of relationships, but Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a bright-eyed, almost impossibly enthusiastic new employee who Saajan has to train before he leaves the company. And while it might seem obvious where the film and story will go next, Batra softly but confidently subverts expectation, creating a film that is rich, thoughtful and mature.
While the first and second act of the films follow a familiar rom-com template with two unlikely people falling for each other with comic relief combined with slight moments of dramatic levity, it’s when “The Lunchbox” moves into its third act that it establishes itself as something unique. Batra wisely fleshes out those supporting, comic characters, adding depth to their relationship with the leads, with Shaikh’s story in particular gaining some impressive resonance as his backstory becomes shaded in. But more crucially, “The Lunchbox” never settles on an easy resolution for Ila and Saajan, opting for a path that’s much more true to their journey, even if it doesn’t give those seeking something more conventional immediate closure.
While the tonal shift into the third act is slightly jarring, Batra is able to guide his audience down this ultimately more rewarding path thanks to his actors and his own smart filmmaking. The director gets a wonderfully subtle turn by Irrfan Khan, who wisely underplays Saajan’s slow growth. This isn’t a man necessarily going through a transformation, but a late lesson in life, and Khan plays each little change and development with small gestures and little choices that add up to a complex character. And Kaur’s work as Ila is very good as well, even as she spends much of the picture by herself, speaking to her unseen Auntie and reacting to the notes she receives in return from Saajan, still finding fresh notes each time. Meanwhile, behind the camera, Batra’s decisions, which sees him use space and parallel imagery to visually transmit how Saajan and Ila open up during the course of the story, are wise and so deftly employed you may not even notice.
By time credits roll on “The Lunchbox,” to call it at a rom-com trivializes what is a far more textured picture. Batra’s film is ultimately less about love than about the vulnerability relationships place us in emotionally, and courage required to move past pain, and experience life again after we’ve been hurt. But served with two fine lead turns, warm humor and a side of paneer, “The Lunchbox” is an easy decision at the cinematic take-out counter.
The Epistolary ‘lunchbox’ -of pauses & silences ..& Bombay
Had seen only bits earlier and may write a longer note if I ever see the full film. Irrfan Khan has now mastered the chameleon- like demeanour alteration between droll, melancholy, subtle and understated. Nawaaz provides the able contrast.
Nirmit Kaur seems to excel in the ‘bored neglected housewife’ trope lol
But the real star of the show is Bombay-the subtle nuances and mundane everyday detailing that Batra seems to have honed in on.
And kjo as usual has tagged onto the brilliant tagline–
“Can u fall in love with someone u haven’t met!”
To be continued… If complete a full viewing…
This filmis v good stuff but the way such a film gets labelled as the ‘best ever’ points to the current indian film mediocrity…
In the few scenes I did see–could sense an unease, confusion and lack of confidence in the director–but this may get better with time…(obviously not picked up by orgasmic raja sen)
‘The Lunchbox’ ushers in new trends for the bored housewife/ girlfriend
‘Bored/desperate housewives/girlfriends’ is a difficult subset to ‘handle’ (pun also intended). For some perverts though, they incite fetishistic pleasures, but anyhow…
After the success of ‘the lunchbox’ there has been a new trend of bored, neglected housewives sending out ‘messages’ and other secret messaging techniques to strangers. ‘Lunchboxes’ are only one of these techniques.
Some of them have even led to many a ‘blind dates’ set up (no pun intended by ‘blind’!). Dating and match-making services and portals are worried and even considering legal action since most of these avenues are technically ‘free’ and also not amenable to taxation or audit or regulation. Even online blogs seem to have joined in this increasing trend.
On a more serious note–
it’s good to see positive collaboration.
Both Anurag Kashyap (nothing new for him to encourage good projects) and Kjo shook hands to give this worthy film a good platform. Nawaaziddin siddiqui happy to play a small role to ‘support’ Irrfan khan and so on. Why?
To ‘pataao’ Innocent bored housewife Nirmit Kaur –no joking…
For the sake of a good project…
But now what we see—
Politics, election, regionalism, language politics all colluding to kill TLB at the oscars.
Javed Akhtar on the lunchbox: it’s one of e finest films by an Indian nd if sent, would have definitely won the Oscar..
The independent Gujarati film called ‘The Good Road’ was announced as India’s official entry for the best foreign film at the Oscars 2014. The film was selected over 21 films including titles like ‘The Lunchbox’, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’, ‘Ship of Theseus’, ‘English Vinglish’, Malayalam film ‘Celluloid’ and Bengali movie ‘Shabdo’. However, as soon the official announcement was made, the online media was flooded with posts criticising the decision. The popular sentiment was hugely in favour of the Ritesh Batra-directed ‘The Lunchbox’.
When TOI contacted Gyan Correa, the director of ‘The Good Road’, which had earlier won the National Award for the Best Feature Film (Gujarati), he said the criticism was unfair. “Most of the people venting their discontent over the selection are the ones associated with ‘The Lunchbox’. ‘The Good Road’ has won the National Award, and it has been picked for the Oscars by accomplished filmmakers. I think it stands a big chance at the Oscars,” he said.
Justifying the decision, filmmaker and chairman of Oscar selection committee of Film Federation of India, Goutam Ghose said, “There were other strong contenders but after a four-hour deliberation, the jury unanimously decided on ‘The Good Road’ mainly because of its content and form.” Batra, the director of ‘The Lunchbox’, seemed disillusioned. “The global response to my film has been unprecedented. Is the fraternity telling us not to make good films in the country? Then the next best option is to make films outside India,” he said adding, “If ‘The Good Road’ doesn’t get short listed, the film federation should be held accountable”.
As soon as the official announcement was made, the presenter of the film Karan Johar and co-producer Anurag Kashyap took to twitter and vented their dissatisfaction. Johar said: “I have not seen the Gujarati film, but I am just deeply disappointed that The Lunchbox was not selected. A film that already created a buzz at every international festival, a film that had an international studio ready to go all the way with it, a film that has the best reviews by our critics–if such a film is not sent then it is unfortunate. We might have just lost our chance at the Oscars.”
An evidently upset Kashyap said: “For the first time I really cared for it and hoped for it because of the American press and Sony pictures Classic and their opinion on it. But it was not to be.” He stressed the need for a clear selection policy, an opinion that was seconded by fellow filmmaker Anand Gandhi of Ship of Theseus fame.
However, many are slowly coming out in support of Correa’s film. Gauri Shinde, director of English Vinglish said, “I can’t wait to watch ‘The Good Road’. If it’s the committee’s selection, I’m sure it must be a gem of a film.” Prasoon Joshi, who penned ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ said: “I think we should celebrate the fact that Indian cinema is being talked about on a global platform. Gyan is an extremely talented filmmaker, and we must all support his film.”
Ad man, Rahul da Cunha, one of the few who has seen both the films, pointed out that although ‘The Lunchbox’ is a brilliant film, it would be fair to watch ‘The Good Road’ before passing a judgement. “Come to think of it, we were spoilt for choice, which is extremely rare. It’s unfair to criticise ‘The Good Road’ without having seen it. For all we know, the result could surprise us,” he said with a note of optimism.