For somebody who traverses the box office every week, this one is really out of the box experience in more ways than one. A love story where the lovers don’t meet, converse only through notes written on small pieces of paper and still you don’t find it farcical. Very much like the miracle that is the central conceit of the film, it is the magical writing of debutant director Ritesh Batra that makes you surrender to his three course cathartic experience.
The blandness, the obfuscation in the name of craft that we often associate with art house cinema is fortunately missing here. The ingredients retain their flavour and are cooked in a way that it doesn’t remain nutritious only for the discerning. Even a layman can access the flavours of its epistolary form. And perhaps that’s why its aroma has been able to cross over national and ethnic boundaries.
One day a dabbawala in Mumbai falters and delivers the tiffin sent by a housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) for her husband to an aging widower, Sajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), who is about to retire from an insurance company. Constantly ignored by her husband, Ila is trying to win him over by her culinary skills and when the lunchbox comes empty, she feels her magic has worked. Her joy remains short lived for her husband fails to identify her culinary stamp. But the mistake starts a unique relationship between a lonely wife and a forlorn widower. Both have created boundaries around themselves and the food begins to unshackle them.
Irrfan talks through his silence that conveys the pain of a man who is at war with the world but doesn’t want to show it. It is like a big tree is wilting, and the interaction with Ila through letters gives him the hope that he can reverse this process. When he notices himself in the painting of a roadside painter, he realises for a moment that he is still part of the world…a heart wrenching scene, which captures the loneliness in a bustling metropolis. Newcomer Nimrat inhabits Ila like her body. The henna-stained nails, the unplucked eyebrows makes you feel that nobody has noticed this girl for years. Perhaps that’s why a little note of appreciation turns the wheel for her. We have seen many such committed housewives around us but unfortunately not in our films. Ila’s mother played by Lillette Dubey is another exploration of emptiness in married life.
In the meantime Aslam Sheikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) joins Saajan’s office as his replacement. He is everything that Saajan is not. Aslam brings energy to the narrative as Nawaz doesn’t allow him to become one-dimensional. Like the onion he grates on the way back home, he peels one layer after the other revealing our deep insecurities and stereotypes in the process. Soon food becomes inconsequential as Ritesh brings in the bigger questions of identity, perception and life in the big cities. Aslam often says that his nonexistent mother used to tell him that sometimes a wrong train can take you to the right destination. It is true for this love story as well. It has everything which we don’t expect from a love story but still it leaves us besotted.
When his talented actors are busy drawing attentions towards themselves, Ritesh keeps building on the little nuances in the background. The making of food is so beautifully captured that you can sense the urge of stomach! As Ila undergoes the change, her kid is the first one to notice it but she chooses not to express it. We come to know about it when she blindfolds her doll. Ila’s aunty (Bharti Achrekar’s voice) tells us that she cleaned a moving fan! But there is a bigger story behind it. When the words become visuals, it shows the writer has invested time and talent in the script.
And when he manages to firmly install the characters and their stories in the audience’s mind, he leaves them to find their own answers. Was Ila’s husband actually having an affair? Did Sajan and Ila finally meet? Very much like Ila’s lunchbox, Ritesh has packed one layer above the other and then packed all of them together into a wholesome diet of heart-felt experiences to be munched at home.
Cast:Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bharti Achrekar
Plot:A dabbawala’s mistake brings two shackled souls in touch and it leads to an unusual romance...
Bottomline:A cathartic experience