For someone who traverses the box-office every week, this one is really an out-of-the box experience in more ways than one. A love story where the lovers don’t meet, don’t talk and only converse through notes written on small pieces of paper and yet 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 meal.
The blandness, the obfuscation that we often associate with art house cinema is fortunately missing here. 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 takes the tiffin sent by a housewife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), for her husband to an ageing 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 through her culinary skills and when the lunchbox comes empty, she feels her magic has worked. Her joy, however, remains short lived, for her husband fails to identify her culinary stamp. But it 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’s as if 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 a 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 un-plucked eyebrows make 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 housewives around us but unfortunately not in our films.
In the meantime, Aslam Sheikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) joins Saajan’s office as his replacement. He is everything that Saajan is not. Sheikh brings energy to the narrative as Nawaz doesn’t allow him to become one-dimensional. 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 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 draw attentions towards themselves, Ritesh keeps building on the nuances. As Ila undergoes the change, her child 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 truth 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.
Maa is back in business along with lessons in honesty. Rajkumar Santoshi takes us back to the old school days and shows how melodrama can be compelling. On the surface, it has all the ingredients which make it sound dated but Santoshi brings in a layer of innocence and a charmer called Shahid Kapur turning it into a rollicking entertainer.
In the beginning, a film writer tells the protagonist, an aspiring actor, that he had films like Wanted , Dhoom and Ghajini in his mind but they were stolen even before he could pen them down. It is this satirical tone that marks Santoshi’s writings. These days mainstream comedy is reduced to a series of disjointed gags on human anatomy. His humour is more situational and will work only if you get a hang of his crazy universe, which is quite similar to his last film Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahaani or his enduring comedy Andaz Apna Apna . Yes, there are timeless tropes like villains kidnapping the mother to blackmail the son but there is a whiff of honesty in this cocktail of drama and comedy, which compels you to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours. It is about Vishwas, both literally and metaphorically! Either you have it or don’t.
Vishwas’ (Shahid) mother (Padmini Kolhapure) wants him to become as a police officer but the boy is star-crossed from childhood. So, when fate takes him to Mumbai, his ambition takes wing. He gets into the uniform for the shoot of a portfolio but is mistaken for a real police officer by a girl (Ileana D’Cruz) who loves to complain. And soon we find that our protagonist is doing everything that our hero in the poster flaunts. It is this intermingling of reel and real that makes it an interesting watch.
After a staccato start, once the film gets on track, the naivety of characters — even the villains are endearing — wins you over.
Santoshi, who has also written the film, pays due credit to his inspirations. So, when he lifts a segment from Munnabhai he weaves the title in the story. There is no infestation of gags. The humour emanates from the situations and though songs come at will, the intrinsic logic is not compromised. The only issue is that the second half is stretched beyond the elasticity of the narrative and the climax seems a rehash of Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahaani.
Once again, Santoshi proves why he is called an actor’s director. Shahid makes a solid comeback after a series of duds and almost carries the film on his robust shoulders. He has always been cute but a kind of sameness had set in his demeanour. Here, he loosens up as he gets to essay all the emotions that make an actor a commercial Hindi film hero. In fact, Vishwas admits it at the end. Ileana is supposed to be cutely irritating and she does it well. Returning after a long break, Kolhapure plays the mother of yore. Though Santoshi has characterised her as an auto rickshaw driver, he hasn’t given her any elbow space to improvise on the wretched maa staple, who only has honesty and courage to flaunt and tears to dispense. The support cast is up for the game with Saurabh Shukla and Sanjay Mishra in crackling form. The timing is key here and nobody goes off key. Even Salman Khan, in a cameo, laughs at himself and for once gets insecure! It is the kind of ‘masti’ that one expects from our mainstream Hindi cinema.