Indian film’s African premiere at Diff

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A hit Bollywood film makes its African premiere at the Durban International Festival, which comes to a close this weekend. In this article Bollywood Hungama’s Subhash K Ja discusses the film.

 

In Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar, desolation was epitomised as much by Shabana Azmi’s face and physicality as it was by the architectural ruins where Sen shot his dirge-like tale.

In The Lunchbox, debutant director Ritest Batra does not seek easy escape routes for his characters’ destiny of drudgery.

The film is set in the heart of Mumbai, where everyone is just trying to survive. Right away, the sounds and relentless rhythm of the city are captured.

There is something completely non-cinematic about The Lunch-box. It is stripped down of all affectation.

The secrets of lonely hearts are not laid bare through conventional cinematic devices – the use of background is so sparing that you often end up listening to the music inherent in everyday routine: the way the trains move in the afternoons, the sound of auto-rickshaws bustling by, the sizzle of onions frying in a kitchen, the sound of the TV playing as a family have dinner in silence.

It’s not just Ila, the suffering housewife; her preoccupied husband (Nakul Vaid) also seems lost in the act of existence. Even their little daughter looks forlorn with her ragdoll, as if she needs a good cry, but is not sure Mama will be there to console her.

And to scare you, there are whispers of a woman jumping to her death with her daughter. Ila won’t… never! Right? Holding back grief is a well-worn suburban ritual that Ritesh Batra’s screenplay understands only too well.

Every individual in Batra’s universe is disconnected from an inner tranquility and distanced from the people around them. It is no coincidence that Ila, our heroine who thinks of suicide but holds herself back, connects the best with an unseen aunt living with her comatose husband on the floor above. Aunty (Bharati Achrekar), we learn, never turns off the ceiling fan that whirrs above her inert husband. She fears if the fan stops, so will her husband’s breath.

These life-asserting pretences we indulge in to believe that we lead meaningful lives, are the crux of The Lunchbox. Hence Ila strikes up an illusory bond of empathy with the almost-retired office worker, Fernandes (Irrfan Khan).

It starts with a wrongly delivered dabba to a widower. The initial delight of two strangers communicating facelessly soon turns into an intriguing relationship of empathy.

The tragedy of two lonely people, one married in a loveless partnership and the other still wedded to his dead wife’s memory, bonding over tiffins filmed with gourmet dishes, is punctuated by the omnipresence of an annoying intruder (Nawazuddin), who keeps barging into Fernandes’s meditative melancholic interactions with his faceless culinary benefactor.

Among the three protagonists, Nawazuddin as the deceptively shallow character Sheikh has the toughest role. He must seem frivolously jovial and insensitive to Fernandes’s lonely existence, though he is anything but.

Further, he has a happy life. And that should and does fill him with a guilt he cannot express. In many ways, the bond that grows between Fernandes and Sheikh is far more real than the one Fernandes discovers in the aroma of the tiffin that lands up every day on his table at 36 Chowringhee Lane.

He is alone, trapped in memories of happiness but also surrounded by the sounds and smells of a normal life. The little contact he makes with a family in the building opposite his own, through his window, is emblematic of his empathetic solitude. Yes, this man has hope.

Food, which contours the tragic love story of Batra’s film, is used almost as a reminder of life in the face of death. When Ila’s mother (Lilette Dubey nails her character’s abject desolation in just two deftly written sequences) finally loses her husband, she talks of hunger rather than loss.

Bereavement and loss affect individuals in very strange ways. What The Lunchbox says, in a language that exudes the scent and comfort of the familiar, is that we can strive to fill the emptiness inside us by cooking, feeding, and remaining busy with motivating acts of daily gratification. But we are finally left with nothing.

This frightening thesis of existence is laid bare in The Lunchbox with a compassion and warmth that embrace morality. This is a sad film. But it is not depressing. As the two protagonists whose souls collide and then come apart, Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur give exceptionally fluid performances even as their characters grapple with the chaos and complexities of feelings that, alas, do not fit into compartments as comfortably as the food in a tiffin carrier.

Irrfan’s bearing suggests age that won’t accept defeat. He is a portrait of stoicism in the face of solitude. Michael Simmonds’s camera doesn’t miss a thing. It seems to capture every moment of the character’s inner and outer lives, merging the two existences and yet keeping them apart.

I came away from this profoundly moving tale with two of the most unforgettable lines of wisdom I’ve heard in a film. One comes from Nawazuddin who says, “Sometimes the wrong train can take you to the right destination”.

And then there is Kaur, so noble in her suffering, who opines, “Very often we forget our memories because we have no one to share them with.” The memory of food, friendship and forlornness associated with The Lunchbox will stay with me for a very long time. – bollywoodhungama.com


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