A delicate romance reinvents Bollywood
by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
May 8-11 RPL Film Theatre
Two powerful forces are openly in conflict for the soul of Indian cinema. The dominant Bollywood model still draws millions with a combination of melodrama, song and dance (the last two less omnipresent than before). It also knows how to sell its stars: people like Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra and the Bachchan dynasty are famous world-wide. Shah Rukh Khan is like Brad Pitt and Justin Bieber combined.
The challenger: those more interested in a realistic portrait of modern India, particularly the clash between tradition and modern life — the former, firmly entrenched; the latter, too strong to be denied.
While they lack the resources traditional Bollywood has, the avant-garde gets international attention.
The Lunchbox heralds a new era in which Indian-made films get distribution abroad beyond niche markets. It’s a well deserved honour: The Lunchbox has all the elements of Hollywood classics like Sleepless in Seattle or An Affair to Remember, plus social criticism.
Saajan (Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi) is a cranky widower with little to look forward to. He sees his impending retirement as a death sentence.
Predictably, those final days in his desk job become the most eventful of his career.
First, Saajan gets a tenaciously eager apprentice who won’t take “no” or “go away” for an answer. Around the same time, Saajan starts getting the wrong lunchbox from a delivery service (in India, a three-course lunch sent to the workplace used to be the norm). The food is far better and is made with extreme care. The cook is Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a mistreated housewife who hopes to win back her husband through his stomach.
Ila and Saajan start exchanging notes through the lunchbox and soon they become part of each other lives. Behind his gruff demeanor and brutal honestly hides a man lost in modern times. Ila falls for his unfailing chivalry, while Saajan sees much of his dead wife in his pen pal. Not the best foundation for a relationship, but exactly what they need.
Superb performances by Khan and Kaur give The Lunchbox an extra edge. Unlike the romantic dramas we are used to, this one includes a generous dose of poignant social criticism. A good chunk of daily life is wasted in Mumbai’s traffic jams, to the point some commuters start cooking while still in the bus. Saajan uses the precious little time left in the day to reminisce about his spouse, effectively letting his life pour out through his fingers.
The beautiful setup makes every possible outcome inadequate, and, not surprisingly, the resolution feels rushed, especially considering how nuanced and deliberate The Lunchbox has been up to that point. Nonetheless, this is one of those films in which the journey is more important than the destination. As date movies go, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Old Man Rogan’s Good Neighbors
It’s a safe bet that nobody thinks of Seth Rogen’s brand of cinematic humour as refined, but his take on raunch is always better than the Adam Sandlers’ of the world, and whenever Rogen really bombs, it’s because he was restrained by the studio. (See: The Green Hornet, Funny People.)
The studio behind Neighbors clearly cut him loose, and the film’s all the better for it.
A contained explosion of sorts, Neighbors sees the schlubby comedian pitted against pretty-boy Zac Efron. Neither is particularly noble, but one is more impish than the other.
A young couple with an infant daughter (Rogen and Rose Byrne) suddenly find themselves living next to a fraternity — with no money to move. They still think they’re cool, so they don’t want to become the neighbourhood cranks, but soon enough they’re calling the cops to complain about the noise.
The fraternity doesn’t take criticism kindly and the leader, Teddy (Efron), lets his sociopathic tendencies run wild. The stand-off escalates quickly.
Neighbors is consistently funny. Other than a couple of occasions where the set-up takes too long, the joke hit-to-miss ratio is quite favourable. The film actually becomes a (mild) indictment on the reluctance of 30-somethings to take on adult responsibilities: there’s a twinge of envy in their every complaint. The “wasted youth” subplot is less effective, but it’s far from a deal-breaker. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo