On Lunchbox as symptom..

I put this up initially as a comment but then decided to give it a separate post..

The A O Scott piece on Lunchbox is very much on the money. Hardly anything I’d disagree with. I’d make this related point though which is not necessarily a criticism of the film. One could juxtapose this film with a certain Bombay middle cinema of the 70s or perhaps even moreso the Malayalam middle cinema (though it wasn’t ‘middle’ for its industry) of the 80s. The obvious difference is of course the fact that those films were still commercial efforts (either in a minor key or because they reflected the production limitations of a smaller industry) while Lunchbox has more auteurist (for want of a better term) ambitions. A small art-house effort though can sometimes end up making a fault out of its virtues if it insists too much on the precision of the ‘lyric’ moment. In other words this sort of film builds up a collection of such instances, it offers a genuine peek into the world it represents, it even leaves a certain resonance in the mind after the viewing has ended, but despite all this it can in certain ways lack that ‘sign’ of potentially greater meaning. The commercial film even when it is retrained always deals with ‘large’ subjects. What is compromised by way of subtlety is to a degree made up by this greater potency of meaning. This is partially achieved through a greater ‘affectivity’. The emotional registers of the work, the more obvious performances of stars, all conspire to achieve this even where a more sophisticated set of codes might be missing. So it’s a larger film masquerading as a little one while on the other hand there is a little film that is afraid of too much meaning. In one sense the latter fear is a justifiable one. The lyric moment can be destroyed if overlaid with too much meaning. Alternatively if the balance isn’t just right the moment itself might come across as obscure. Differently still meaning must not be too obvious in such a work but nor must affectivity make too direct a pitch at the viewer. Such a movie always involves an economy of precision far more than any commercial venture but the trick is that the carefulness on this score must not seem so to the viewer. Lunchbox might be that more ‘careful’ movie whereas Udaan (to cite a counterexample) is possibly the more ‘natural’ work. Or to use a different set of examples to illustrate the same point one of the reasons why so much foreign cinema from the 50s and 60s seemed so iconic even then was because even the seemingly smaller, less accessible subjects were treated as grand ones that would set a new course for the medium or at least introduce an important mutation. Leaving aside the reliance on stars or more obtrusive scores the cinematographic equation was differently constructed. As opposed to the claustrophobic shots of much of contemporary art-house cinema you had more expansive vistas where ‘national space’ could be utilized to a greater degree. Even in films with on the whole more compressed shots you had enough moments when the frame would simply be opened up to allow for that ‘grander’ perspective (which should not be confused with a bird’s eye view of some kind). A film shot in one Roman suburb somehow said something about the European condition or even the human condition whereas a film shot in Kuala Lumpur might simply be about a sordid chapter of globalization in one corner of the world which is then like any other along the same lines. Yet again, that older cinema still depended on a universal meaning whereas the contemporary kind chooses a fractured experience where meaning no matter how profound cannot go much further than the frame. One does not often see iconic urban sites in an art-house film today, it was hard not to have the opposite once upon a time. So even with someone like Antonioni when he’s shooting in a country-town he finds in the landscape a visual equivalent for a national-iconic that Fellini might more obviously locate in a major urban center. or when Bergman depicted all those bleak Swedish landscapes their very desolation combined with all of the director’s existential themes made the result somewhat ‘epic’. Not that this is the only possible answer. Sembene’s work for example is occasionally more ‘classic’ in this way but at other times he has little films that open up more to the viewer on account of a greater comic energy or the eccentric types that populate them. Once again Lunchbox isn’t a problematic film, it certainly does everything it attempts very well but whether the director ever lets the film breathe freely might be questioned. The obvious example here is Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character who for a while seems to provide sparks to the narrative but who is overall kept ‘quarantined’ so as not to disrupt the film’s restrained pitch. Irrfan meanwhile is convincing here, certainly keyed into the film tonally, often fine, but also a bit burdened to appear natural in a signature way (Rangan probably mentioned this earlier and I agree with him). So you have the boxes being lifted with a bit too much care and slowness, the weariness a bit stagey at times and so forth. But in any case Lunchbox is in a long line of contemporary art-house cinema that is intent on highlighting compression in terms of narrative and framing and emotional response. Such a work is always busy trying to define in streamlined fashion the idea of a fine film and very rarely allowing itself the freedom to become one.


31 Responses to “On Lunchbox as symptom..”

  1. To me the movie is manufactured as you suggested comparing with Udaan. Probably that is why I couldn’t connect even though it was about emotions.


  2. “Lunchbox might be that more ‘careful’ movie whereas Udaan (to cite a counterexample) is possibly the more ‘natural’ work.”-

    Superb, one couldn’t have put it better. Thank you so much for this piece Satyam. Really loved reading this. And your last line is somewhat harsh, but probably true even if I enjoyed the film far more than you. I loved Irrfan here though (my favourite turn of his alongwith The Warrior and The Namesake) and Nimrat Kaur even more so. On the Bombay middle cinema reference, I too had something similar to say about the film in an earlier comment here-

    “Caught up with The Lunchbox today and liked it a lot. I will have to also admit that this is the best film about Bombay to come out in a long, long time. And the way Batra uses every Bombay-related cliche (the Bombay rains for instance) to a fine, fine effect is a joy to watch. in a way the film comes very close to the middle-cinema world of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee- the middle-class life of the city is shown in the most textured manner. But also like in the ways of the two directors, the ‘everyday life’ is presented with the lightest of touches without any sort of over-emphasis happening…..one of the producers here is Danis Tanovic. And it is shot by Michael Simmonds, the DoP who works in Ramin Bahrani’s films- that is also probably the reason also why Bombay here is shot in a very different manner”

    I think something like Dhobhi Ghaat was slightly better than The Lunchbox in this regard. Also the more auteuristic directors like Dibakar Bannerjee, who otherwise have a great eye for the detail, always somewhat err by really focusing too much on the moment, trying to make everything look too precious.

    And while I really liked the way The Lunchbox showcased Bombay, the tranquil side of the city and all, I sort of missed the more kinetic side of the city (Bluffmaster got this right). In other words I probably got my ‘Rimjhim Gire Saawan’ moment but not the ‘Bambai Shahar Ki Sair’ one. Remarkable how Basu Chatterjee could get both out. In fact in that scene in Manzil where Maushumi Chatterjee suddenly starts hurrying on the street assuming that AB is stalking following/stalking her, for a moment we got the scarier side of Bombay, the ‘megalopolis’ in the metropolis. Man, how many moods of the same place could Chatterjee and Mukherjee bring out!

    Waitinf for your views on Shahid and Highway!


    • This is a great comment all round Saurabh.. I did like Lunchbox but I think it’s part of a larger global art-house aesthetic which often ends up not satisfying me completely. But it could just be a very personal thing. Glad you brought up Manzil. Here’s part of an older comment on Bachchan’s blog which references Manzil but is also perhaps a better framing of some of the points I’ve tried to make in the post:

      [I saw after very many years a mid-80s Basu chatterjee effort called Kirayadar with Raj Babbar and Padmini Kolhapuri and the redoubtable Utpal dutt. Not one of the director’s golden films by any means it is nonetheless quite enjoyable. I in any case love all Bombay films (films with the sights, sounds and ambience of the city) and this is one of those but it is also a rare example of the by-then increasingly endangered middle cinema of the 70s.

      But this film reminded me of one of the director’s truly fine works from the closing years of the 70s — Manzil, which also starred one Amitabh Bachchan. I have said very many things about different aspects of this film and won’t repeat the same here. However there is one moment in the older film that connects it to the later one and which is a great example of just how subversive and sly these films could be in very subtle ways.

      At the beginning of Manzil there is that very funny sequence when Moshumi Chatterjee’s character thinks she is being followed by yours. At one point she increases her pace as do you (incidentally just this brief moment is great performance on your part), eventually you rush past her and she realizes that she needn’t have worried. There is often that paraphernalia of the Indian woman that she is being followed! Perhaps not as pronounced today as it once was. But you specially had the bourgeois married woman who could spot followers at the drop of a hat! Of course we know these things happen all the time and yet there was perhaps some ‘desire’ that was part of this entire structure. One always imagined being followed more than one really was. It was akin to being stared at all the time! Because others desired you they looked at you and often followed you! A harmless bit of ‘wishing’ only partially predicated on reality.

      And so again in Kirayadar Padmini and Raj Babbar head to the same building on Pali Rd, she thinks he has been following her on the bus and thereafter, finally she arrives at her apartment and sees him heading to the very same address! This is because Padmini and her mother are actually tenants an at apartment owned by Raj Babbar’s father. In Manzil of course after learning to her satisfaction that she isn’t being followed the lady rediscovers the gentlemen as a guest (and fine singer!) at the very party she is attending.

      so much could be said about these two vignette-like moments (and I have tried!). A whole archive of urban life opens up and is treated with some hilarity by the director. Basu Chatterjee was always especially attuned to the comedy of a daily commute and/or routine in a city like Bombay. I have offered one example common to these two films but there are very many others and often so subtly placed in the film that one cannot instantly absorb all these elements even over multiple viewings.

      Basu Chatterjee’s work is another rich example of a great tradition of Bombay cinema that will never be equaled again. I am quite confident of this. Which is not to say that there cannot be another age of Hindi cinema where very good films are produced. But the signature individuality of the older tradition is not likely to be replicated in the increasingly global aesthetic of contemporary directors. ]


    • haven’t seen Highway or Shahid yet..


    • Saurabh: loved your last full paragraph, especially the way you framed Bombay in between the two “poles” of Rim Jhim Gire Saawan and Bambai Sheher Ki… I hadn’t ever thought of it that way.

      The Bombay of the Lunchbox is far more quiet than that of the songs you mention: that is because nostalgia always is quieter, and the Lunchbox presents the “ordinariness” of Bombay as itself a subject of nostalgia– which might say something about the audience it is intended for (not people who actually get dabbas in the office, but people who either used to get dabbas in the office; or even, people who have watched dabbas in long-ago films)…


  3. “Such a work is always busy trying to define in streamlined fashion the idea of a fine film and very rarely allowing itself the freedom to become one.”

    What a great, quotable line. I don’t think anyone could have said it better. This independent art-house cinema just bores me, whether it’s The Lunchbox, Lost in Translation, or so many others that people have raved about. Maybe I am not smart enough for these films.

    On the other hand, really enjoyed Highway recently. That Imtiaz Ali was able to say something genuine about the haves and have-nots was the most surprising part for me.


    • Satyam: your write-up is pretty consistent with my views, although the Bombay shots alone — and the fact that these were NOT done as part of a film on crime — made it worth a watch. There is definitely a sense of the “zoo” here: who is watching, ie who is this film made for? One can never shake the sense that the film is not supposed to be watched by the people who are in the movie (and that is a huge difference from the cinema of the 1970s or the Malayalam cinema you reference). I was still moved, and did enjoy watching the film in the cinema, but more for the glimpses of a cinema and a city that I love rather than for the film itself.


  4. Irfan Khan’s dialogue delivery was also very slow and composed like he knew this is for an art film.


  5. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    Qalanadar: “One can never shake the sense that the film is not supposed to be watched by the people who are in the movie..” Why should that bea problem, or stop it from being very good film? Pather Panchali was certainly not supposed to be watched by the people who are in the movie. Arthouse films are meant for an urban, educated and cinema literate audience no matter what kind of people feature in them.


    • Utkal: that certainly doesn’t stop it from being a very good film, but it does affect my own enjoyment (as opposed to my admiration) of this or other films. Perhaps that explains my weakness for so-called “middle” cinema — certainly golmaal is not the artistic equal of pather panchali, but it affords me greater pleasure…. And even within Ray’s oeuvre, I do prefer the more urbane works (eg Nayak, Pratidwandi, and so on), where the artistry is married to my enjoyment in a seamless way, and such questions do not present themselves…


      • I think I knew where you were going with the initial response on this in terms of ‘who is the film made for?’ but I’m a bit more puzzled with this one. I thought you were earlier referring not so much to the literal idea that those who corresponded to the people in the film couldn’t watch this film but the larger sense that a work might not have enough truth to it to convince those it otherwise seeks to represent. This is of course different from box office success or failure which can come about for a variety of reasons. On Pather Panchali this did well at the box office. Of course it’s fair to assume that those represented in the film were in no position to watch it but one would imagine they’d find the film ‘true’ if they did.


        • True — I guess my second comment was not a theoretical one, but was more of a statement of what can stand in the way of pure enjoyment on my part. Your point about “truth” is powerful, and a more intellectually coherent approach that accounts for both personal accessibility; and enables one to draw distinctions between different films that fall within the “art house” category.

          Stated differently, when I said that Lunchbox is not the artistic equal of Pather Panchali, it is surely because of this difference in truth, as well as the craft of the filmmaker. But Pratidwandi or even the Amol Palekar films from the 1970s are accessible to an even greater degree, because the question of the divide between “who is in this film and who is this film for?” is not presented in the same way, is presented in a much weaker form. Where both come together in Ray’s work is in Days and Nights in the Forest: a fantastic film, but note how “off” Simi Garewal’s adivasi character seems, in a way that was not true of the book on which the film is based (admittedly I read this in translation).


    • “Why should that bea problem, or stop it from being very good film? ”

      Yes I often have the same sense with Ratnam films!

      “Arthouse films are meant for an urban, educated and cinema literate audience no matter what kind of people feature in them.”

      well it’s surprising then why these films don’t work even the audience you describe. At least 99% of the time. I am referring to India. Things are of course different in a Western context.


  6. The good arthouse films have done well in varying degrees with the audience they aim for …Peepli Live, Dhobi Ghat, Ship of Theseus, Lunchbox, Mumbai Diaries. They have all been appreciated. I am not talking about box office numbers, though they have been good for these films. But I am talking of genuine appreciation, people having been touched by these film, carrying them in their head, talking a bout them..things like that, which are the real indicators of a connection a work of art has made with its audience.


    • But you have a completely abstract definition of what doing well is. It ranges from decent box office numbers to 3 people liking the film, 2 of which are the reviewers! Judged by this standard unless audiences and critics both universally detest a film it is a success in your books! Of course since there have been films in movie history treated to even this sort of reception but judged great over time I’m not sure what even this means. Now take your list, DG got an opening relative to the scale of the film because of Aamir. He took this film as far as one possibly could but the audience watching the film didn’t like it because after those initial numbers it went down dramatically and added very little. Now one could say that for a film of this sort that total number is still creditable but that’s only because of Aamir. The film completely nose-dived otherwise beyond that initial. So here you had a minimal sample, people just didn’t like it. Films like Ship of Theseus are never in this position to begin with. Calling Peepli Live ‘art-house’ is quite a stretch in my view. You’re making two contradictory claims. Claim a is that art-house films are made for educated, literate people. Claim b is that the film touched people who were supposed to like it. Now leaving aside the somewhat circular logic of the latter (whether 50 people like a film of 3 one could say the film was only intended for that many people!) given the population of ‘educated’, ‘literate’ folks (terms I am deeply suspicious of but that’s another matter) who frequent multiplexes regularly in India why does such a negligibly small number opt for these films?


  7. rockstar Says:

    i wouldn’t call it a genuine arthouse film as its based on what could have been(a subversion and fantacy):

    1) had mumbai dabbawala made an error(they are six sigma certified with 99.99 % of accuracy )

    2) a married lady not to bother to check identity and start mingling with others…her other companion to happened to be faceless aunty in a city where face is everything

    3) a old lady hitting on old man on local train(an opposite)

    4) a mother who while losing her husband aspire for food and her daughter in whose case food comes as healer when she loses her one

    5) an open ending(can be tragic or happy what you feel)

    6) a buddy who is good hearted but frequently lies


  8. I do not think the people featured in Pateher Panchali would really be as attuned to the beauty or truth of the film, as the well-educated middle-class Bengalis and the festival circuit audiences in rest of India and abroad are. Also ‘ the ‘truth’ of a ‘neo-realistic’ film like ‘Pather Panchali’ or ‘ Bicycle Thives’ would be different from an expressionistic film like ‘ Gangs of Wasseypur’ or ‘ Slumdog Millionaire’. And in nay event how beautiful or truthful a film is has nothing to do with how the characters featured in the film perceive the film. It si about how the audience for whom it si intended view the film. Imagine asking what pandas feel about Kung Fu Panda!


    • Didn’t realize the folks featured in Pather Panchali were a bit like pandas in being distanced from their respective films. I guess this is the sort of ‘truth’ or ‘beauty’ one derives from Ray’s film.. There might still be hope though. Maybe the characters of Pather Panchali could appreciate Kung Fu Panda while the pandas might take to Apu.


  9. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    Peepli ( Live) is not an arthouse film? It gets selected for Sundance Festival, and still it is not an arthouse film? Why?: Because it is successful? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t? You say arthouse films don’t make money in India. And if an arthouse film makes money id cannot be an arthouse film, because it made money. Wonderful logic. And I don’t agree that Aamir Kahn was the driving force for Dhobui Ghat’s BO. In fact Aamir was the weakest link in the film, and the film would have done just as much without Aamir. And if a film made for 6 cr with another 5 cr spent on publicity earning 14 cr net domestically is not success, then what is? And what makes you think the target audience did not like it? Maybe they liked The Lunchbox , Ship of Theseus and peepli ( live) more, of course they did, but they liked Dhobi Ghat too. A rating of 7.2 on IMDB with 7000 people voting is an indication of that. And all the films I mentioned have been liked to this level or more. ( Peepli (live) : 7.6, The Lunch box : 8. Ship of Theseus: 8.1. I really am at a loss to understand from where do you get the idea that the target audience have not liked these films. Purely in money terms all these films have more than recovered their cost, some of them earning many times their cost. Peepli( Live) made 30cr in Indai in 4 yrs back, Lunchbox made 24 cr in India. Look at the ratio of what a film like Once ( 9mn) or A Separation ( 7mn) earns to the biggest domestic grosser like Avatar ( 760mn) . It is about 1/100. Take the ratio of a Dhobi Ghat to Dhoom 3.: 14/280. That is 1/20. Still you say arthouse films in India are not doing well and are not being liked? You must be privy to some special information, but the INDB ratings or the box office figures do not show that.


    • Peepli Live doesn’t quite have the ‘grammar’ of an art house film. Of course I already said that 99% don’t do well. that still leaves 1% that do. And if you think DG would have done the same without Aamir that confirms my strong sense that I should have been cast in the film rather than him. On the rest again not sure what the point is. Budgets are a different debate altogether. DG could do 1/25 of D3 and that would still be great? Not sure what the connection is. Where does one draw the line? 1/30? But from IMDB to budgets to this arbitrary ratio you’re all over the place!


    • Dhobi ghat was promoted by aamir very well and it owes its limited success to his presence as well as his marketing. If we accept that a star’s presence or involvement gives great push for a commercial movie, why not for an art movie?
      And Irrfan’s presence helped Lunch Box immensely.
      These movies are tailor made for festival circuits and critical appreciation. Just the way commercial movies are planned to do that 100 crore business.


  10. Relax guys–stop fighting over a ‘lunchbox’ like schoolkids!!

    In continuation to my comment

    Seems Satyam has paid heed as I had suggested and started making meaningful comments/posts
    He wasn’t looking nice becoming a khap/ vigilante and an admin clerk looking out and blocking my comments before they were posted !
    Which is hard work and not really needed unless one is insecure or scared of what I post and the ‘expose’ it will create on being posted.
    Be a secure man Satyam -cheers.

    As for this actual post by Satyam–sounds good–may read it soon …


  11. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    I have brought in three facets that can in someway throw some light on how well the arthouse films are doing in India. First: their BO taking with respect to their budget to show their commercial viability. IMDB ratings to give an indication of how the target audience, English educated, cinema literate urban audience, is liking these films. And third, the ratio of BO takings of arthouse films to commercial films in the US to that in India to show that arthouse films in India are doing no worse. In fact the films like A Separation and Once are the more successful arthouse films shown in the US. If you pick up 50 films shown at Sundance Festival and check, their BO takings would be much lesser.

    And as to AAmir in Dhobi Ghat, hsi name behind the project definitely helped, as it did in the case of Peepli Live, but not his presence as an actor. I think the film would have earned more with someone like Irrfan or Nawajjudin in his place. The target audience roots for these actors more than Aamir in these kind of films. Success of films like Peepli ( Live) and The Lunchbox proves that.


    • sanjana Says:

      I think aamir doing DG is different from Irrfan doing it. Irrfan is born to do such roles. So nothing novel about it. I dont think audience would have gone in droves if it was Irrfan. That never happens with actors like him. Only Vidya Balan achieved that balance. Both art and commercial movie success.


    • let’s call a truce.. art-house films are faring better in Indian than even at Cannes..


  12. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    Sanjana: Vidya Balan in art films? Since when?


  13. omrocky786 Says:

    Re.-A small art-house effort though can sometimes end up making a fault out of its virtues if it insists too much on the precision of the ‘lyric’ moment.
    Brilliant line and well said….and that is what movies like Paar, ,No Smoking, TGIYB and Pre Johariized Kashyap are…..
    I like movies by Sudhir Mishra , Dibankar Banerjee,Habib Faisal, Manish Sharma


  14. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    Omrocky786: Which is the postJoharized Kashyap?


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