After a second viewing, my thoughts about The Lunchbox are beginning to crystallise. This is an Indian cultural product which ‘reads’ in some ways (primarily its cinematography and editing) like an American Independent or an international festival film. As one of my regular viewing colleagues said to me, it’s difficult to make out who the audience is intended to be. But it doesn’t seem to matter. The film has been a hit in India and in overseas markets. The narrative is ‘universal’ enough to enable UK audiences outside the South Asian diaspora to enjoy the film without ‘getting’ all the cultural references. Presumably the Indian audiences have become so used to American films that they find the presentation familiar. But there are critics, in India and in the West, who want to argue against The Lunchbox. I’ll explore some of these below, but first I’ll discuss the film as I read it.
The origins of the film are in writer-director Ritesh Batra’s preparations for a documentary about Bombay’s dabbawallahs – the 5,000 strong network of carriers who transport a home-cooked meal to office workers in the city each day. Batra told The Hollywood Reporter that he became more interested in the people at either end of the process, the woman at home and the man at work, and therefore constructed a fictional narrative around the “1 in a million” chance that a meal could be delivered to the wrong person. The two people involved in this mix-up don’t know each other. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a wife trapped in what appears as a loveless marriage and who is trying to attract her husband’s interest by making the best meals she can for his lunch. But the lunches are going to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widower who is considering retirement from his job in a government claims department. Saajan is used to the mundane food that arrives from a contract restaurant and Ila’s meals are a revelation. When the mix-up continues the two, recognising what has happened, begin to correspond and thus begin a tentative epistolary romance.
Batra tells us in the film’s Press Pack that Ila and Saajan are both ‘prisoners’. She lives in a middle class Hindu enclave with little contact with the world outside apart from through her small daughter and an older woman upstairs who we never see, but whose instructions and ingredients improve Ila’s cooking skills. Saajan lives in an old Christian district in Bombay – his family name Fernandes hints at a possible Portuguese heritage long ago. It was only on a second viewing that I noticed the print of the Last Supper on the wall behind the dining table of the family in the house opposite Saajan’s verandah. He is not a very friendly neighbour but he envies something about the lives of the local families, whose children play cricket in front of his house. Batra suggests that Saajan is trapped in the past. Eventually Ila and Saajan will find something in common in nostalgia for the Bombay of the 1980s and for the television serials and filmi music of the time.
Ila also has her mother in another part of the city who is caring for her sick husband, Ila’s father. The key third role in the film, however, is Shaikh, the younger man who is earmarked to replace Saajan. Shaikh is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and is, I think, misunderstood as a character by many Western reviewers. It’s a difficult role to play and Batra went out of his way to cast Siddiqui, arguably the current hot star of independent Indian cinema. Shaikh is a Bombay ‘survivor’, an orphan who has had to fight to make his way in the world. He appears as annoying, almost obsequious in his approach to Sajaan. Part of this is his display of exaggerated mannerisms and speech. (Saajan routinely speaks English at work but Shaikh, like Ila, mainly speaks in Hindi – I wish I could tell if any of the characters speak in Marathi.) Siddiqui is also quite short and the contrast when he stands next to the tall Irrfan Khan is marked. It is important to the narrative that we recognise that Shaikh is annoying – but also that he is genuine in his attempt to better himself and provide for his (future) family. He may lie about his background to help his advancement but his persistence finally begins to break down some of Saajan’s defences against the world. In short, Shaikh helps to humanise Saajan. Although we never see her, Mrs Deshpande, the ‘woman upstairs’ has a similar impact on Ila, though in a very different way.
My worry that the Western audience may not pick up all the cultural clues is based simply on my own experience. On first viewing, I sometimes found myself losing the narrative thread, partly because I was trying to think about aspects of the plot and therefore didn’t concentrate on the detail of what was happening on screen. It was only after I read the press notes and interviews and then watched the film again that it all made sense. Now the narrative seems straightforward. So why did I have problems? I did find Irrfan Khan’s accent for the English dialogue difficult to follow sometimes. I was also confused by some of the many journeys across the city – in buses, taxis, trains, tuk-tuks and Shaikh’s scooter. It certainly isn’t clear to the casual viewer that the three leading characters live in quite different districts, connoting social class, religion etc. Much of the cinematography covering these journeys uses a documentary approach and perhaps the film needs some conventional narrative devices to make these sociological distinctions clear? (Station names? Discussion of districts as places to live?) I certainly stumbled over one destination – Nasik. This is, I think, the third largest city in Maharashtra after Mumbai and Pune. No doubt less stressful than Mumbai, I’m still not clear why it is a place that Saajan might retire to. The confusion over journeys and destinations means that the film’s ending is ‘open’. I’ve seen some US reviews refer to a ‘feelgood movie’. I think that the film is certainly more optimistic than pessimistic about what might happen to the characters but I think the lack of a clear narrative resolution works against the usual meaning of ‘feelgood’ (a term I don’t like very much).
There is cricket in the film and plenty of train travel, but what about music? Music plays an important narrative role at two points, once with a reference to a particular song from a 1991 Hindi film and again in a more documentary style with the singing of a group of dabbawallahs. So the Indian cultural content remains but not the conventions of Indian popular cinema.
The Lunchbox was ‘launched’ successfully at Cannes in 2013 as part of the general celebration of Indian cinema. Crucially, it was then picked up for international distribution by Sony Classics. This meant that there was a marketing push across North America and subsequently in other territories where Sony sold on the rights to high-profile specialised cinema distributors. Indian films targeting diaspora audiences in the UK (and I assume other territories) are usually distributed by the UK offices of major Bollywood companies. They don’t therefore get discussed in mainstream UK media or placed before audiences outside the diaspora in specialised cinemas. The last significant release of an Indian independent film in the UK was Gangs of Wasseypur, but the distributor Mara Pictures, which describes itself as a ’boutique distributor’, did not have the muscle to promote its release properly. The Lunchbox has the backing of the UK’s premier specialised cinema brand Artificial Eye/Curzon. That has made a big difference to its chances of being seen.
So, what does it all mean? And how has the film been received? The best review of the film I’ve found is from the Indian critic Baradwaj Rangan. I read this review after I’d written the comments above and I agree with it 100%, especially the praise for Siddiqui and the analysis of the open-ended narrative. Most of the other reviews aim for a relatively simple acceptance of the pleasures of what is indeed a well-made film with quality performances (I was very impressed by Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan is always worth watching). However, it is a first feature and it isn’t necessarily the ‘best’ of the new independent Indian cinema. It is clearly linked to the work of diaspora filmmakers such as Mira Nair but it is more of a chamber-piece than The Namesake with Irrfan Khan and Tabu. As an ‘opening up’ of the debates which the film has started, I recommend this ‘Minority View’ on Dear Cinema from MK Raghavendra. I don’t agree with everything in his review but what he writes (and the comments he attracts) put the film nicely in perspective. One interesting question is how the director presents ‘nostalgia’ for Bombay in the 1980s and when the narrative is meant to be set. I haven’t been in the city since the 1980s and apart from the increase in traffic and the new cars it looked much the same as I remembered it. Sajaan’s office is piled high in papers with barely a computer in sight. I don’t remember seeing many mobile phones in use. These technologies are mentioned in the film and Ila’s no-good husband fiddles on his phone when he should be talking to her. But Raghavendra asks the reasonable question, why did Batra not allow his two leads to use mobiles? I think there are phone calls at various points but it is a good question. Would it present a problem for the script? (The negative comments on the film tend to blame the weakness of the script.) I did feel that watching Saajan trying to track down Ila by asking the dabbawallahs was rather like watching the father search for his bicycle in Bicycle Thieves. These might seem like trivial points but The Lunchbox, as the significant ‘breakout film’ for Indian independent cinema carries a burden of expectation. I think Raghavendra is partially justified in seeing the film as not being quite sure what it wants to be, caught between an observational documentary style and a rather contrived romance narrative structure.
The real danger is that Western critics will leap on the film as an example of the ‘real India’ – or the ‘real Indian cinema’ without the nuanced perspective the film requires. I’m saddened that this seems to have happened at Sight and Sound, the UK’s film journal ‘of record’. At least The Lunchbox got reviewed when most Indian films on release in the UK don’t (so much for recording UK releases). It’s good that the review went to someone other than the regular reviewer of Indian cinema but unfortunate that the person chosen either knows little about Indian cinema or simply chose to treat the film as a festival film on the American independent model. The review compares the film at one point with Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in terms of representing “contemporary Indian middle-class urban life”!
I hope now to see more recent Indian cinema and to return to The Lunchbox for some further thoughts a little later.