Monday, May 26, 2014

The Lunchbox (orig. Dabba) [2013]

MPAA (PG)  BollyMovieRevs (4.38/5.00) TimesOfIndia (3 1/2 Stars)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

BollyMovieReviewz review list
Times of India (S.M. Das) review

HollywoodReporter (D. Young) review
NY Times (A.O. Scott) review
Slant Magazine (N. McCarthy) review
Spirituality&Practice (F & M.A. Brussatt) review
Variety (J. Weisberg) review

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review

The Lunchbox [2013] (written and directed by Ritesh Batra) is a little Indian film, the director's debut, that nevertheless caused something of a sensation at last year's Cannes Film Festival and the subsequent festival circuit.  It played recently (again) at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago and articulates exactly one of the reasons why I love movies and why I created my blog.

Most of us living in the United States will never be able to go to India (it's almost exactly "halfway around the world" from us -- 12 time zones), even if many/most of us will get to know at least a few Indians or descendants of Indian immigrants during the course of our lives, perhaps in a professional capacity, perhaps at work, perhaps at school, perhaps as neighbors.  However, our interactions are still largely determined by our Western setting where our interaction would most likely take place.  (An excellent film that expresses this difficulty is The Namesake [2006] (which incidentally costars Irrfan Khan one of the stars of the current film) in which an Indian grad-student "making good" in the United States finds when his father dies back home in India that his American girlfriend, lovely and kind though she is, is utterly lost when they go back to India for the funeral).

I do believe that "little" but well made films like The Lunchbox [2013], not only set in India, but also written, directed and acted entirely by Indians, telling stories of the "joys and hopes", lives and struggles of a small set of "regular people" (in India) can help Westerners (and  non-Indians-in-general) appreciate both the fantastic richness of life there (so many people, so much seeming "chaos" to the outsider, yet to those living there entirely in the norm) and the obvious commonalities in human experiences and aspirations: We all want to be loved, we all sometimes feel lonely (even in a crowd) and we all struggle to built happy and meaningful lives out of "the cards" (circumstances) that we're given.

So then, to the film ... ;-).  The Lunchbox [2013] is built around a wondrously complex hot lunch delivery phenomenon existing in Mumbai, India involving specialized couriers called Dabbawalas who pick-up hot lunches generally made by wives at home and transport them (hundreds of thousands perhaps even millions of them) by bicycle, train, lorry (truck) and again individual courier into the hands the individual workers in the city to whom each of these individual lunches is destined.  Honestly, when one watches the journey made by just one of these lunch boxes -- carrying the hot lunch prepared by Ila (played by Nimrat Kaur) a young housewife with help of her Auntie (voiced by Bharati Achrekar who we never see but hear and who lives on the floor above her) for her husband Rajeev (played by Nakul Vaid) working somewhere in the city -- one wonders how this delivery service could possibly work (the individual lunchboxes, all different shapes / sizes, don't seem to be labeled in any way).  And yet it (mostly) does...

I say "mostly" because, one day the lunch box carrying Ila's lovingly-made lunch made for her husband (in hopes that he'd come to appreciate her more) ends up on the desk / office / office building of another, a Saajan Fernandez (played by Irrfan Khan) an irritable, older man, approaching retirement.  Since Saajan was a widower, he had no one to cook for him.  So he had ordered his lunches, delivered in the same way, from a local caterer.  Well, even if Rajeev did not seem to be particularly impressed with Ila's cooking, Saajan was.  Now, readers understand here that Saajan did not understand initially that the lunch box that arrived for him was not intended for him, but he did appreciate the food.  So when the lunch box returned back at Ila's home at the end of the day, she found that it was completely wiped clean ("as if he licked clean all the bowls" she happily recounts to her auntie living above).  And indeed, Saajan was so impressed with the meal that made it a point of stopping by the caterer who normally made his lunch to compliment the cook for a lunch well done.  "Please keep doing the same," to which he happily agrees.  However, when Ila's husband Rajeev came home that evening and she asked him about how he liked the meal that day, he didn't seem to react with much excitement at all.

Hmm, so what happened?  After a couple more days/meals Ila figures out that the lunch she is preparing for her husband is going to the wrong person.  So one day she encloses a note with the lunch telling the recipient that she suspects that he's not her husband, but -- like perhaps a lot of underappreciated spouses in any land -- she writes that she doesn't care anymore and appreciates that at least he, the recipient of her meals now, seemed to like them.  Saajan writes back, and a penpal relationship based on "culinary adultery" begins ... ;-).

The rest becomes a fascinating story.  It becomes clear that Saajan didn't even realize how lonely he was since his wife had died (or how awful a person he had become to those who still surrouneded him, and could have been part of his life if he gave them a chance).  There's a lovely side story that takes place during the course of the film involving an underling named Shaikh (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) to whom Saajan pays absolutely no mind ... until he himself becomes happier.  For her part, Ila comes to the realization that she really needs more out of her marriage than a relatively comfortable roof over her head provided by a husband who otherwise also didn't seem to pay her no mind. 

Now for a conservative society like that of India, formal onscreen adultery, is all but impossible ... and it actually does become clear to Saajan that he's much, much older than Ila (and his own sense of moral propriety makes it impossible for him to take the relationship in that direction). But this film makes it absolutely clear that everyone from Ila to her Auntie to Saajan to his coworker/underline Shaikj, fundamentally need to feel loved / respected.

Thus this film, even if it takes place "half a world away" from the United States and in cultural circumstances that also seem quite different from those of the United States, still articulates fundamental needs that all of us can understand and in a way that honestly helps one to learn a little bit about life and the customs of contemporary India as well.  No wonder this film was such a hit!  Great job!

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