Mayank Shekhar | Last Modified - Sep 20, 2013, 01:08 AM IST
If you see it one way, this film is an outcome of two very popular clichés. One is the proverb about how the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. The other is the ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not’ kind of of news item about an age-old ritual of Mumbai that has so often made it to the western press: that the dabbawallas of the city, ferrying a couple of lakhs of lunchboxes between various suburban homes and workplaces, rarely, if ever, make a mistake while manually matching the lunchbox to the right office floor, and back to the correct house door, every day. They’ve mastered this art over 130 years by now.
This dabba service system I guess does fail, at least this one time when housewife Ira’s tiffin for her husband lands up on Fernandes’ table. Fernandes, a widower, is an accountant, I suppose, in the pensions or insurance agency of the government. His office is just as manually run. There are no computers. Old rotary fans circulate the quiet air below. You see desk after desk loaded with piles over piles of papers and files. They reveal an uneventful routine of pure drudgery that might sedate anyone who has to seat himself every morning in a place such as this. Fernandes has been doing this for 35 years. It shows in his dark eyes and forehead and a fully resigned look on his face. Somewhere between the bus, train and occasional auto-rickshaw ride to work and back, life must have passed him by.
The woman, who’s much younger, has a little daughter, and a husband who is wedded to his cellphone. You feel sorrier for her. A 1 BHK match-box apartment is her life, and packing lunch for her husband its highpoint. Through the misplaced tiffin carrier, the accountant and housewife develop a bond of some sort. They could both do with a change in scenery. The accountant is anyway awaiting his early retirement.
A relationship between two complete strangers is far too common now, given Internet and social media – an altogether alternate universe – that allows this to happen so easily. They rightly show up in quite a few romantic films as well (You’ve Got Mail, Mitr My Friend, Sleepless In Seattle etc). The couple here communicate through letters in a lunchbox. Their thoughts are hardly anything literary or profound, which is just the way it’s likely to be. The dabba (or dabbawala) is their pigeon or postman. It seems quite old world in an age of the cellphone, as does the transistor radio in her house and the video player in his, only subtly adding to the charm, without this aspect being played up too much.
Irrfan plays Fernandes. In Bombay where he’s from, he would be called a “Mac uncle” (Mac for “maca paw de,” or “give me bread,” a nickname derived from the Christian love for paw, or bread). Nawazuddin Siddiqui is Sheikh, his newly appointed under-study. From the moment Sheikh walks into the screen, you know he’s going to make you laugh. He doesn’t do much, merely goes, “Sir, aapko kaisa lag raha hai... Aap kaise ho sir” etc. Yet, every time he’s in the frame, I don’t know why, you feel a mild urge to chuckle. Some actors tend to have that effect, when they catch the nerve of their characters so well. Nawaz is best known as a dopey, menacing gangster from Gangs Of Wasseypur.
From an equally dreaded dacoit in Paan Singh Tomar or a local goon in a Uttar Pradesh college (Haasil) to a convincingly calm engineering professor at a university in Boston (The Namesake), Irrfan remains one of the few working Indian actors to have so fully realised his range and potential on screen. Looking closely at Mr Fernandes, you get a sense that you’ve known this old, unhappy man all along. Empathy is complete. He says we tend to forget things when we have no one to tell them to. Well, I suppose that’s why we forever seek friends and companions.
Drawing on these three main characters – housewife from Malad, Mac Uncle from Bandra, married assistant from Dongri – debutant writer-director Ritesh Batra remarkably scripts a story of loneliness that affects the best of us living in the world’s most crowded cities. Since its award winning debut at Cannes, the film has found interested mainstream producers (Karan Johar, UTV) to back its release in India, followed by intense media lobbying to ensure it is India’s entry to the Oscars. This is the only way a small, simple film like this can travel such a huge distance.
The latter half of all great movies (rather than those that are merely good) is always better than their first half. This picture primes you up for the end, slowly taking control of your emotions when you’re willing to go either way so far as this film’s conclusion is concerned. Truly age is a physical reality. Usually none of us know it when we become old. We’re just too close to the subject to be able to tell. Others might be able to judge better. But do we stop living until we’re really dead? I hope not.