Sunday, April 13, 2014

DELICIOUS!!: a review of "The Lunchbox"

Written and Directed by Ritesh Batra
**** (four stars)

Dear readers, I am on a roll!!!!!!

"The Lunchbox," the debut feature film from Writer/Director Ritesh Batra is a winner! What an absolutely lovely film this was and in the tradition of the late, great Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, I feel that it is my duty and imperative to point you in the direction of this film as it is one that will easily fall through the cinematic cracks as it is not only a smaller independent film but a foreign film at that. Do not let the prospect of subtitles deter you. Don't let the lack of CGI pyrotechnics and presence of subtitles sway you away from it. I am here to assure you that if you do choose to take in "The Lunchbox," you will indeed be handsomely rewarded with an experience that is chock full of charm, perceptive insights into human nature and inter-connectivity, enormously romantic, empathetic, deeply melancholic as well as a film that will definitely tempt your taste buds. If you miss this one, shame on you!!

Set in modern day Mumbai, "The Lunchbox" introduces us to Ila (a glorious Nimrat Kaur), a young wife and Mother, who has found herself in a lonely and unfulfilling marriage. Hoping to spice up her relationship with her distant husband (Nakul Vaid), Ila begins to prepare intricate and specialized lunch meals which will be sent to her husband at work through Mumbai's lunchbox delivery system. One day, the lunchbox intended for her husband mistakenly arrives upon the desk of Saajan Fernandez (played by the great Irrfan Khan), a lonely government accountant readying himself for an early retirement. Tempted by the succulent aromas emanating from the lunchbox, Saajan eats the entirety of the meal and sends the box back to where it originated from.

Once Ila realizes that her husband did not receive the fully eaten meals she has lovingly prepared for him, she continues to cook and send the lunches, now augmented with handwritten notes, to Saajan, thus beginning a correspondence that may awaken these two lost and adrift souls, possibly inspiring them to merge paths.

Ritesh Batra's "The Lunchbox" is a high accomplishment made even more impressive that it is Batra's first film. It is so assured in regards to its tonality, maturity, conception and presentation that it feels like the work of a seasoned veteran filmmaker. I just found it amazing that Batra took what could have existed as a romantic comedy construction and treated the concept with such intelligence, grace and soulfulness that no moments ever feel to be false, contrived or prefabricated. Most importantly, "The Lunchbox" is not a film about a plot, so to speak. To me, I felt it to be a "slice-of-life" film presented with an honest, matter-of-fact quality that made every emotion reveal itself naturally as Batra allows his movie, like the food Ila prepares, to take its time to congeal as succulency as possible and this approach works like magic.

As I watched "The Lunchbox," and despite its location of Mumbai, I was often reminded of films like Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" (1998) and even Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013) as each of those films explore themes of alienation and isolation and are about lost and lonely people who somehow find a sense of connection. For Coppola,  the connection between her characters was found through being isolated in a foreign locale. For Jonze, the connection was created through advanced technology.

With "The Lunchbox," which actually could serve as a counterpoint, or even better, as a companion piece to "Her," Batra ensures that the connection between Ila, Saajan and even a third character, Shaikh (a terrific Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a new, eager young accountant that Saajan mentors, are forged through the purposefully tactile experiences that come with the preparation and sensory stimulating aspects of food as well as through the series of handwritten notes. While Shaikh exclaims to Saajan at one point that we are all living in the age of e-mail, the letters, and of course the food, are forms of that increasingly elusive human touch in the 21st century, a sense of human touch that further binds Ila and Saajan together even though they have not met face-to-face.

What I truly appreciated is that "The Lunchbox" could have easily been an lighter than air concoction but was actually an experience weighted with real and often painful gravity. While not without many episodes that provide sharp humor, especially during sequences that present a certain comedy of manners, Batra utilizes a series of visual motives that beautifully enhance the tenor of the subject matter. I loved how we see a variety of means of transportation and delivery within the film. The first image in the film happens to be commuter trains and we are often riding around Mumbai, with the characters or the lunchboxes via buses, taxis and seemingly anything else with wheels. We are witnessing the endless motion of a society that moves together but not quite. With that, I also loved how Batra displayed an aspect of modern day middle class life as well as working class life in Mumbai and how the two classes are constantly travelling together, yet in completely different circles, and ultimately, how they either intersect or do not.

With regards to the central relationship between Ila and Saajan, characters throughout the film often speak of the concept of how the "wrong train" will sometimes reach the "right station," thus promoting a quality of fate and destiny into the proceedings that also felt completely natural and not of motion picture fantasy. Just the image of that travelling, titular lunchbox itself serves as a wonderful motif that fully describes and augments the depths to which we, and the characters, will find ourselves throughout the journey of the film. The lunchbox itself is shaped like a small silo and is divided into a series of circular containers that disconnect themselves and reveal the inner contents of the meal like a Russian Matryoshka doll. With that subtle image of Ila and Saajan opening, disconnecting, revealing and re-connecting the lunchbox over and again, we are witnessing the growth of their relationship as they are each revealing layer upon layer of themselves to each other, forging a new and stronger connection in the process.

"The Lunchbox" is indeed a love story but it is also a film that conveys a sublime richness as it delves into the themes of mortality, loss, grief, mourning, disappointment, failure, as well as the ebb and flow of marriage. With each meal and each note, Ila and Saajan are forced to come to terms with aspects of how they have each found themselves engaging with their respective lives, that is if they are engaging with them at all. And then there is that crucial third character of Shaikh as he serves as the counter point to both Ila and Saajan, as the more we discover about him and his sometimes questionable motives, they reveal precisely how he is engaging with life in a manner that both Ila and Saajan have denied themselves. The conflicts and connections that Batra has devised and illustrated within "The Lunchbox" are superbly rendered and enormously felt, especially by the film's final moments.

All of the performances within "The Lunchbox" are beautifully muted and astutely presented. While his name may be unfamiliar, you may recognize Irrfan Khan from his roles on HBO's terrific yet sadly short lived series "In Treatment," as well as his work in Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" (2007), Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008), Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man" (2012) and most impressively, as the captivating storyteller in Ang Lee's "Life Of Pi" (2012). Khan is a simply mesmerizing actor as he utilizes a sheer economy of words and movements that convey a world of emotions, including the unfathomable depths of grief, loss and loneliness. Instead of keeping us at an arms length, it is through his reticence that we find ourselves leaning in closer to the screen from our theater seats and he so effectively draws us closer to this character as we wish to know and understand him more, greater and better just as Ila does.

As Ila, Nimrat Kaur is profoundly compelling and absolutely stunning to watch, especially as her character's actions signify the exceedingly higher stakes with which she is playing by continuing to correspond with this stranger. It was certainly not lost upon me that this Ila is not an American woman and the film does not take place in America, which makes "The Lunchbox" also serve as a powerful cultural critique about the role of women in society as they relate to marriage and inter-personal relationships even when the marriage itself is a mistake. Like Irrfan Khan, Kaur also utilizes an even greater economy of words and body language and yet her minimalism is enormously recognizable as we fully understand her dilemma, nearly debilitating sadness and inner turmoil, making her budding relationship with Saajan function with tremendous urgency. Both she and Khan make for a fabulous pairing and duet that soars as often as it is heartbreaking.

Dear readers, this is the time to race out and support something new and wonderful, especially as the Summer Movie Season has not officially begun yet. As I have said over and again, I strongly urge those of you who are looking for a good movie to see, to really make the effort and see something that you otherwise may not have paid any attention. Ritesh Batra's "The Lunchbox" is precisely the perfect film to fit that specific need at this time, as it is truly one beautiful, romantic and haunting movie that seriously understands the emotions of love, loss, and the need to connect in such an entertaining and inclusive fashion. It is a film with no sense of contrivance as well as being a film with no villains. It is an adult film for adults but also one that is presented with no sense of vulgarity or gratuitousness. "The Lunchbox" is a film about life as it is lived, and about what life could possibly be, even when the circumstances seem to be sending messages suggesting impossibility.

Ritesh Batra's "The Lunchbox" has easily sailed to being one of my favorite films of 2014.

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