Saturday, September 21, 2013

Visual storytelling in The Lunchbox

When making simple distinctions between types of cinema, we often think of “character-driven” stories (vis-à-vis “action-driven” stories) as being filled with conversation or monologues. Just last week, I wrote about a relationship film – Shuddh Desi Romance – that was all about talking and analysing; explaining things to others, to yourself, to the viewer. But one of the surprises – and eventually, for me, one of the great pleasures – of Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox was that some of its most effective moments relied on visual storytelling (or as the cliché has it, “pure cinema”), requiring special engagement on the viewer’s part over and above what is being said by the characters. In some scenes I felt almost like I was watching the sort of quietly elegant human comedy that Tati or Keaton did so well.

A marker of that visual engagement is an object, introduced at the start of the film: a tiffin lunch nestled in a green-and-white cover, which makes its way – via Mumbai’s famous dabba-wallahs – from a home to an office. As the dabba-wallahs take countless lunch-boxes through rush-hour traffic, our attention remains fixed on the distinct green-and-white bag, the sunlight dappling on it through the train’s windows. Then, less than 10 minutes into the film, come two wordless scenes that tell us the “plot” is underway. A middle-aged man named Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) unzips the green-white cover and starts to open the tiffin, but we see that something is off. What began as an almost unconscious action – something he mechanically does at exactly this time each day – becomes more deliberate; we can tell that the container he is opening is not the sort of container he is accustomed to handling. (This is a man whose life has been built around routine – he has been in the same job, in an insurance firm’s claims department, for 35 years – but now, confronted with newness, his eyes click into focus.) In the next scene, the container has been returned to the doorstep of a woman named Ila (Nimrat Kaur), and her movements as she picks up the bag are just as mechanical as Fernandes’s were, but then she hesitates, weighs the tiffin in her hand, realises that it is empty – clearly not an everyday occurrence. A look of cautious pleasure crosses her face.

Not a word has been spoken in these two scenes, even the gestures aren’t especially pronounced, yet the attentive viewer can easily figure out what has happened. There has been a mistake in the delivery of a lunch box; Mr Fernandes has eaten the food meant for Ila’s husband; Ila, who is used to leftovers being sent back and noncommittal grunts of acknowledgement later in the evening, is happy that her cooking has been appreciated. These sequences are so fluid, so well constructed and performed, that we have no trouble accepting the basic premise (even given the widely circulated statistics about the efficiency of the dabba-wallahs) or what follows: Ila discovers the mix-up but sends Fernandes lunch again, along with a letter (“Thank you bannta hai na,” she tells her confidante, an old neighbour) – and then, in the email age, these two people who know nothing about each other begin an unlikely correspondence by dabba.

Understatement in cinema can be a tricky thing. Get it wrong and you’re in danger of not just making the film flat and uninvolving, but also appearing just as self-conscious and forced as the “over-doer”. (As Orson Welles once put it, “Ham actors are not all of them strutters and fretters, theatrical vocalizers – a lot of them are understaters, flashing winsome little smiles over the teacups, or scratching their T-shirts.”) The Lunchbox gets understatement and restraint exactly right, both in the
outstanding lead performances by Khan and Kaur as the lonely-hearts and in Batra’s delicate screenplay, which makes expert use of the “show, don’t tell” principle. The viewer is constantly invited to participate in this story, to work things out as layers are slowly peeled away. When Fernandes goes to the little restaurant that sends him his lunch – to tell them he is retiring next month, he won’t need the dabbas any more – we can make out a blurred mass of familiar green-and-white container-bags in the window (they are visible but not obtrusive) and it helps us understand how the mix-up might have happened. Later, hearing about a woman who jumped off a building with her daughter, he fears it might be Ila, and we feel his tension in the subsequent scene where he is seated at his office desk around lunch hour and the dabba-wallah does the rounds in the background, apparently bypassing Fernandes’s desk and moving away (while Fernandes cranes his neck anxiously) before returning and setting down the comforting green-white package. Purposeful silences and long pauses in films can be gimmicky (and sometimes, a film that is celebrated for “requiring the viewer to be patient” is really a film that requires a viewer to be bored), but here the writing and the acting reveals character, facilitates full engagement and lets the viewer use the silences to figure out what is happening, what someone is thinking, what may be coming next.

There are so many other subtle touches, from a glimpse of a bathroom mirror that has rarely needed to be wiped clean, to the gamut of expressions on Ila’s face when she doesn’t see a letter in the tiffin but then finds it under a roti, or a scene where a phone is answered off-screen and we need to hear only a couple of words, spoken in a hurried, matter-of-fact tone, to gather that the speaker’s father has died and that she barely has time to sob a little to herself while preparing to leave for the crematorium. I also liked the way in which Fernandes’s first name is revealed to us more than halfway through the film, and how the construction of that sequence ties in with another theme – nostalgia for a distant past, felt by people who have aged without realising it. (This IS made explicit in the screenplay at one point, when Fernandes talks about why he suddenly felt the need to watch episodes of his deceased wife’s favourite old TV show, Yeh jo Hai Zindagi. But when Ila asks to play the songs of a romantic film from 20 years ago, one might guess that it is not just an expression of her current feelings but also a brief return to a childhood when her life was simpler and happier.)

This is a story about people connected in tenuous ways: by a dabba-wallah’s mistake, by shouted conversation across the walls of an old building, by a basket lowered outside the window of a flat to the one below. (Though one of the key characters, Ila’s old “aunty”, is never seen – she is just a disembodied voice – we feel we know her well.) There are visual links between the two protagonists too: one person’s voiceover seems to comment on the other’s actions, and there are echoing gestures, including mundane ones like waving flies away from food; reminders that many of the quotidian details of Ila's and Fernandes's lives are similar. They feel similarly isolated and “rocked back and forth by life” (as Fernandes puts it in a letter, while the visuals shows him sitting in a juddering local train), and they unrealistically dream of moving together to a land where gross national happiness is the stock in trade. But there is of course the possibility that they will remain ultimately cut off, like ships passing in the night, or like the two trains in the film's opening shot, moving towards each other slowly on parallel tracks, so near and yet so distant. And given these various possibilities, as well as the delicacy of the film’s structure, I thought the open-endedness of its conclusion was just right. As so much else is.


  1. What about him? He's very good, as he usually is. Didn't feel the need to mention him in this particular post though.

  2. Raja Sen gave it 5 stars. Do you read his reviews?

  3. Anon: no, not usually. I don't much read reviews these days anyway, except occasional pieces by 2-3 of the writers whose work I like and want to read regardless of what I think of the film.

  4. I also especially liked how music/sound as used to enhance the storytelling(visual as you noted). Background music suddenly stops playing for example in a scene when Fernandez's thoughts are brought back to reality when Sheikh walks in. Also, The saajan song playing in Ila's house and the scene cutting into the train where young boys are singing the same song was brilliant. Creates the impact of the protagonists being at the same place.

    Reg your comment on the ending, I had a different opinion. It didn't feel right(not a deal breaker though as almost everything else worked for me). There was a sense of closure for the Fernandez character(getting a second wind to live his life). Ila's character didn't seem to get a closure. While she says that she is turning a new chapter and going to Bhutan, the long goodbye to the daughter made me doubt if she will do it. Don't know if this was intentional or it was just me( or maybe be I didn't hear her correctly in this last shot). This left me feeling the ending as uneven. For some strange reason, was reminded of the ending shot from "The Sopranos" last episode that didn't work for me either .


  5. Commenting here for the first time, but have read and enjoyed your writing for a long time. Loved your analysis on this movie. You have a way of noticing minute details about films that completely elude casual watchers like me. The film itself though, did not totally work for me. I don't know if it was because of the understatement or something else, but it was uninvolving to a large degree for me, personally. And this despite there being several elements/ themes that I could identify with - loneliness, the tyranny of routine and the urge to break free from it coupled with a paradoxical wish to hang on to its comforts, the loss of a spouse and the nostalgia-cum-regret it triggers, and so on. Yet I found myself feeling largely apathetic towards the characters.

  6. I saw the movie today and now read your review which covers the movie really well. In fact after reading your review I think I missed quiet a bit. How many times did you see the movie before writing this review?

  7. Raj: thanks for the comment. I didn't pay as much attention to the music as I should have, though I did like the boys on the train too, tunelessly singing songs from way before they were born - they provided another nice bridge between the past and the present.

    I didn't think there was real "closure" for either character, and I also didn't think it was self-evident that Ila would end up going to Bhutan (in fact, when the film ended, I think I just assumed she wasn't going).

  8. Nikhil: thanks, and yes, of course these things are utterly subjective - apart from anything else, so much depends on the mood one is in on the day one watches a film. I also spoke to a friends who had mixed feelings about the film and theorised that it might have worked better for him if he had seen it alone, on a TV set at home rather than in a somewhat noisy hall.

    How many times did you see the movie before writing this review?

    Dushyant: that's a very flattering question! Once, of course, and I don't think I should see it a second time too soon, because there's always the danger that I'll change my mind or feel differently about everything.

  9. "Didn't feel the need to mention him in this particular post though."

    So does he add to the mood, the visual storytelling, or does he distract from it? He is obviously an important part of the film. You've used a picture of him too. Is the film what it is also because of him or despite him?

  10. Stop trolling, you fool. The film is what it is both because of and despite him. Being dark-skinned, he "lightens" the mood. Being short, he adds to the visual storytelling. Will do a dissertation about this soon.

  11. Hello Jai,

    For me, the best thing was how the director portrayed some of the complex scenarios with simplicity. His simplistic approach stayed with me. The way he captured few moments in the film reconfirmed me that you cant have a formula for that.

    Lillete Dubey somehow felt like a false-note in the film, somehow it felt melodramatic in a film which is so subtle, throughout.

  12. "“Thank you bannta hai na,” she tells her confidante, an old neighbour"


    There seems to be a mistake, this is a dialog by the old neighbor to Ila.

    Excellent film, because of and inspite of the actors.

  13. Lunch Box delivers a delicacy. Not the one that is served in a plush, upscale restaurant but what you relish on in the comforts of your spartan home. And, not prepared by a gourmet chef but it’s an outcome of sheer labour of love. All the ingredients have been added in right proportions and what is served is a delectable treat. And, much before, you start pampering you palate’s gustatory cells, there is waft of aroma that fill the room, harbinger of is to follow. Much after, you stop indulging the aftertaste lingers and you feel satiated.

    The movie remains silent, at most times and yet it speaks, through hints, gestures, expressions, body language and cinematography. It’s a delightful cinematic experience. You are not told you infer. Unlike most of the cinema churns out from our Tinsel town, it never insults your intelligence. But it’s not intellectual stimulation that does the trick but a simple heart-warming story with an apt script.

    For the kind of minimalism cinema that debutant director Rithesh Batra had set out, he needed nuanced actors, that could do justice to the script. Two of industry’s certified Six Sigma actors (Irfan Khan & Nawazuddin Siddiqui) were casted and they did not disappoint. But it was female lead, Nimrat Kaur, a relatively new entrant in the industry, who delivered such a restrained performance that one can’t but adulate her maturity, as an actress.

    Lunchbox is an epistolary where narration builds the plot through letters.These letters are exchanged between two individuals who have never met each other. This allows them to speak their heart without inhibitions and in-turn it allows you to be more intimate with character‘s psyche. You know they are lonely and they filling each other’s void. They are doing this with tenderness and care and eventually it progresses to love. Progression so gradual, that each phase cannot be demarcated. Much like dawn one can never really delineate when darkness gave way to light. Or as Faiz says: “Jaise viraane mein, chupke se, bahaar aa jaye ” I was like the empty field where springtime, without being noticed, is bringing flowers.

    So the romance is tender and platonic. However, when it comes to meeting each other the protagonist sees himself, in the that very mirror he has been using for all these years, as though for the first time. He realises he has aged and also realises that he never acknowledged this earlier. He is uncomfortable with this fact. Khan portrays this discomfort with such finesse, reaffirming his credentials. This scene is visual rendition of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s poem, ‘Approaching Fifty’: ‘Sometimes, in unwiped bathroom mirrors, he sees all three faces, looking at him: His own, The grey-haired man’s whose life policy has matured, and the mocking youth’s who paid the first premium.’

    The movie is speckled with similar tender moments and it never goes overboard in dealing with emotions. Life has inherent beauty in simple things which we ignore. There are there, all in waiting, to nourish us but choose to overlook. So with cinema, a simple slice of life film can be a delightful experience. And, Lunchbox is just that, as it provides not only food for thought but also food for soul.

  14. Care to comment on the backlash of not choosing this for the Oscars entry? I watched the film, liked most of it, did not like some of the turns it took in the latter half but I don't get this overreaction of "How dare you not select the film that finally had a legitimate chance at the Oscars?" I mean, is everyone supposed to just kneel down and agree this is a great film? And all said and done, I'd have put Ship of Theseus above this if it was just between these two for the choice.

  15. @gradwolf - Yet to see Lunchbox or the great road (which was chosen). But do note that Gautam Ghose was heading the selection committee(Source - Wikipaedia) and the it was unanimous. I would trust his judgements on a difficult subjective matter like this one. Also note the difference in budget, star cast, star producers and banner / lobby support behind this one compared to the good road

  16. Gradwolf: Oscar conversations bore me hugely, and I haven't seen The Good Road anyway, so can't even venture an individual opinion on which is better (or whether Chennai Express is better than both of them).

    I agree in principle with what you're saying about the backlash being very tedious. But apropos is everyone supposed to just kneel down and agree this is a great film? - I've seen a few pieces that say The Lunchbox should have been chosen not necessarily because it's a "better film" but because it would have had a better chance of clicking at the Oscars (those are two entirely different matters).

  17. (And since one can't have this sort of conversation without getting showily onanistic at some point, let me toss my locks and "opine" that the first half of Lootera was better than either Lunchbox or Ship of Theseus. But fat chance of anyone in the Oscar committee taking a second look at a film like that one, even if half-films were eligible.)

  18. Gradwolf: also, can anyone ever take the Oscars seriously if this clip wasn't nominated for best performance by an Indian in a short film? Whatay.

  19. Yet to see Lunchbox, but someone needs to give a dressing down to whiny entitled brats behind Lunchbox for making a non issue out of Oscar selection. Who do they think they are?

    The Good Road is selected. And it was Goutam Ghose as the 'lead selector' - he knows what good cinema is - I would trust his judgement over a combination of Karan Johar and Anurag Kashyap!

    And now with today's news of Gujarati producers taking a rally since "The Good Road shows Gujarat in poor light", I have a feeling its actually a good film.

  20. Gautam Ghose in an interview here -
    "The criteria is simple — we had to select a film that represents the country perfectly."
    Don't see how his opinion can be taken seriously after reading that.

  21. @Jai - very interesting comment " I've seen a few pieces that say The Lunchbox should have been chosen not necessarily because it's a "better film" but because it would have had a better chance of clicking at the Oscars (those are two entirely different matters)". A valid point and something I had not thought of.

    In the linked interview of Gautam Ghose, he states "But then,we didn't really choose the film based on whether it has Oscar-friendly elements to knock the socks off the all-American jury. The criteria is simple — we had to select a film that represents the country perfectly. Who the producers are and what sort of a buzz they could create for the film is not something we take into consideration. "

    Maybe there should be a clear alignment of the objective to the committee as success (even if it is through better promotion) in the Oscar would portray our films in better light than making a statement through presenting the best ones.

    Lastly, I looked thorugh our oscar submissions over the years and must say that barring a few, they have been sub par at best. Last decade has been particularly bad.

  22. Sid: to be honest I'm surprised you hadn't thought of that point - it seems the most obvious thing in any Oscar-related discussion. Are we really pretending that it is always possible to objectively quantify one film as being "better" than another, and that Oscars get given to the "better" one? Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Oscar history knows that certain types of films tend to stand a better chance than certain other types of films, notwithstanding such conceits as "this film is better", etc. And the issue gets even more complicated when it comes to the foreign-language category because aspects of the culture barrier come into it.

    Also. that "we had to select a film that represents the country perfectly" quote gets funnier each time I look at it: what misguided hubris!

  23. I think, by the logic of that quote, only "Mile Sur mera tumhara" could qualify for the Oscars.Even that could get disqualified if it overlooked any state or language.

  24. That quote from Ghose makes me giggle and groan simultaneously.

  25. I loved this review and loved some things about the film. But not everything: what didnt work for me were the letters themselves. Especially since hers are in Hindi and his in English. Just words can't bond two people who are speaking different languages.

    Being in a real life situation with similarities (hence Anonymous!), I feel the writers didn't get the letters right.

  26. Except for Ila's husband, the other characters seem to be living in the per-electronic age. While it isn't exacrly a dealbreaker, it makes it seem as if The Lunchbox is set in some fantasy alternate universe. I wish it was a period film set in a time before evrybody had a phone or cellphone. A real Ila and Saajan in today's world would be talking to each other

  27. Nice review. Made me want to see the film -- I can't say that about most films, Indian or otherwise. Irrfan Khan is an actor I like and the role seems made for the subtlety he brings to his roles.

    I did not appreciate the spoilers in some of the comments, but a good movie can't be spoiled. Unlike a book, you don't go to a movie just for the plot.

  28. @ Vishal- Your comment is a movie critique in itself! It added to the fine post by Jai.

    @Anon-Bonding goes beyond words.Language doesn't matter as long as the intent is translated which it was in their case.

    @Anna- You would be surprised as to how many people just write to each other(epistolary connections) and talking might come on later but it isn't mandatory.