Two months ago, I left Mumbai temporarily for the sunnier shores of Goa to work on Sensorium, an arts festival organised by the Sunaparanta Arts Centre. The winding paths of Altinho, the serenity of Panjim in the early mornings and the fresh air of Goa soon made me forget the bustling metropolis I call home. Last weekend, it all came crashing back as I sat down to watch Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox under a starry sky at the Sunaparanta amphitheatre as part of the centre's Film Club.
The chaos that's part and parcel of living in Mumbai, its bustling and packed local trains, the throngs of people, and the efficiency of its dabbawallahs brought me a slice of the city in Goa. As I watched the film for the third time, I wondered if being away from Mumbai would make me like the movie more or less. Would I miss Mumbai with a pang? Or would I remember it with a mix of relief and nostalgia? As it turned out, the film moved me as deeply as it had before the third time around too. The reasons are myriad: it's an unlikely love story set in a city that I love to hate; there's food involved; and of course the letters exchanged between the surly Sajan Fernandes (the man with a frozen heart) and the lovely Ila (with no last name, longing for love).
Three days later, Sunaparanta hosted Batra as part of Sensorium's line-up. After a rather rousing introduction by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, the co-director of Sensorium, in which he touched upon the brilliance of Batra's cinematic narrative ("The film's conclusion does not permit for a neat end, bearing in mind Toni Morrison's dictate that the best stories are open-ended, and collaborative: the storyteller lends one half and you, the reader, the viewer, make up the other half") the evening belonged to the filmmaker.
It was when Batra began talking in his soft-spoken but firmly grounded fashion that I realised why The Lunchbox is such an important film for me. It was his maxim "less is more" which I had adopted with gusto in Goa. A line that defined the film's ethos: a story about two people trapped in their personal prisons, who learn to express themselves. At first haltingly, then with a sudden spurt of confidence which again falters.
Batra shared with the audience his initial scribbles that he carried around in a dog-eared notebook until the film premiered at Cannes. He joked, "It will one day be my daughter's wedding gift or pay for her college!" For Batra, talking about The Lunchbox was like going back in time (the film was released in 2013), "While it's weird thinking that it's over, one is trying to move ahead."
Through eight carefully chosen scenes, Batra deconstructed the film and highlighted words, colour, character, the city and most of all the import of nuance while scripting. For instance, to Batra, it was important that something as ordinary as roosting pigeons used in the opening montage be used to convey the "conveyor-belt nature of the city" [see Clip 1].
Batra also made a delightful reference to Sensorium's ongoing show, "Macondo" a tribute to Gabriel Garcia Marquez by photographer Fausto Giaccone. Referring to the scene in which Ila's letter to Sajan describes her neighbour, who in his comatose state stares at the ceiling fan, he said, "I discovered Marquez quite late in life while in college and he was all I read. This scene was [my touch of] 'magic realism': the miracle of mixed-up lunchboxes and one character flicking at a fly and it reappearing at the same time in another character's life." [see clip three].
The filmmaker also talked about how difficult it was to bring the city into the film and yet leave it out of the camera frame. A point he demonstrated rather effectively through a scene with Irrfan stuck in a traffic jam and chatting with his rickshaw driver. "It was while shooting this scene that I learnt a lesson that I will recall for the rest of my life. As a reader you actually get into the character's head, a visceral process. And when you are working with a great actor like Irrfan you learn to move with the beat of the actor within the scene. I learnt by watching Irrfan and that was very revealing for me. In the rickshaw, we were talking about Mumbai yet were trying to keep the city out of the frame." [see clip four].
Much like Ila's carefully ground masalas, humour is gently infused through the film, adding much needed levity. It is particularly evident in the banter built between Nawazuddin and Irrfan's characters. [see clips five and seven].
Batra's parting thoughts for the evening was the final still of Nimrat Kaur as Ila bereft of all her jewellery but someone who has become something more than just a lunchbox.
Isheta Salgaocar, executive producer Sensorium, in appreciation of the director's vision, commented, "Ritesh's motto directly ties in with the idea behind Sensorium - of being small, but serious. When it comes to creating anything, it is not just what you include but also what you exclude... Ritesh's film was beautiful in that it found, in perfectly ordinary situations, experiences which were extraordinary; humour in the mundane."
Later, when asked about Batra's stirring presentation and how it fit into the arts festival, Raj Salgaocar, patron of Sunaparanta explained, "Sensorium celebrates how the senses are invoked. The Lunch Box fits beautifully with the theme. The [actual] lunchbox becomes a way for two lost souls to connect: first visually with the green lunchbox, then through the scent of food and its taste, and finally through brief, touching notes. Sight, sound, perfume, touch - all come into play. Batra's talk at Sensorium brought this out through illuminating clips of the film, and photographs, which is at the heart of our festival."
The Lunchbox narrowly (or not) missed being at the last Oscars. At Sensorium every single member of the audience will be rooting for it at the BAFTAs.
Film director Ritesh Batra was in Goa to participate in the arts festival Sensorium. The festival is being exhibited at Sunaparanta - Goa Centre for the Arts and in its inaugural year explores photography at the intersection of the arts. Through its 10 ongoing exhibitions, Sensorium looks at the personal narrative, music, literature, installation art and film. More details at: http://www.sgcfa.org/sensorium.php.