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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

Unpacking The Lunchbox: Layers of language and time

The Lunchbox

ome time before The Lunchbox released, I heard two film journalists chatting. "Arrey haan, kab aa rahi hai woh Tiffinbox?" said one. Uproarious laughter followed. "Tiffinbox nahi, Lunchbox, Lunchbox!"

Two weeks later, Ritesh Batra's debut feature about a tentative romance between an ageing clerk and an unhappy housewife opened in India. Buoyed by the backing of Karan Johar as co-distributor and a publicity budget nearly thrice its production cost, the film got a great box-office response. The Twitterati anointed it our Oscar hopeful. But the official selectors failed to follow their lead, and the film became the eye of a storm.

That uproarious laughter came back to me then. It seemed to point to something crucial about the place Batra's wistful film occupies in the zeitgeist. After all, it does have a Hindi name: Dabba. But I haven't seen anyone call it anything but The Lunchbox. This isn't just about the fact that those who can afford to go watch 'Hindi movies' in a theatre are increasingly those we call 'English-speaking', but that plays a role. As does the fact that the Indian social media praise follows this dabba's international route: Cannes, Toronto, Telluride. And might that film-festival success itself owe something to the fact that much of the film is voiced in English, making for a minimally-subtitled film that has a Bandra clerk talk of baingan as "my favourite aubergine"?

Don't get me wrong: The Lunchbox is a lovely little film. But it does tick all the boxes that might appeal to festival audiences: quaint Asian urbanism (Mumbai trains, dabba delivery), Indian home-cooking, romance. It provides local colour, without being demandingly untranslatable.

s British writer Tim Parks recently argued: "[H]owever willing and cosmopolitan a jury may be, a novel that truly comes from a different culture, written for that culture in that culture's language, is a difficult creature to approach... When prizes go to foreign books, they tend to come from authors who are consciously writing toward an international public." The Booker International has gone to books not written in English just once in five times; the IMPAC award only seven times out of 18. But as Parks makes clear, this is not only about language. It's about serving up a culture for Western consumption: "The prize process sucks foreign writers into our tradition. The genuinely exotic is replaced by a palatable exoticism constructed for a global liberal community capable of granting the desired celebrity."

If this is true of the literary marketplace, it's even more true of that category called world cinema. Most Indian films are too 'genuinely exotic' to translate, not just for the reasons usually offered – our love of song and dance – but because our histrionics are pitched higher than anything a Western audience can deal with. But The Lunchbox translates perfectly. It's meant to. Its characters experience sorrow and fear and suspicion and love, but they never confront each other. They have their emotional crises silently. And there are no songs, unless you count the '90s Hindi film numbers that play serendipitously in the lives of both characters, or the dabbawalas singing Gyanoba Mauli Tukaram Tukaram, a Marathi bhakti song to which no subtitles are provided. The dabbawallas' song is Indian atmospherics. It doesn't need to translate.

It's in this context, I speculate, that "tiffinbox" seems so funny. The word "tiffin" is officially English, but the English no longer use it themselves. Outside of India (and British ex-colonies like Malaysia and Singapore), "tiffinbox" is as un-understandable as dabba. But calling that familiar stainless steel container by its everyday Indian name is what comes naturally to most of us. Do we laugh to cover over our subconscious embarrassment? How easily we could have made that mistake ourselves, revealing our untranslated inner selves.

And yet, The Lunchbox does not only cater to its world audience. Yes, it knowingly manipulates the now-global cachet of Bombay dabbawallas. But it is also an affectionate caressing of Indian middle class memory. The time is not mentioned, but it feels like the 1990s. The dabba delivery mistake is not discovered until the husband returns home. In fact the dabba mix-up evokes the old romance of the cross-connection. Neither Ila nor Fernandes has a mobile phone, and in turning that lack into the basis of a letter-writing relationship, the film urges us to think about the intimate pleasures we have so quickly lost. (It is no coincidence that Ila's husband, who does have a cellphone, is too absorbed in it to even register his wife.)

Our nostalgia for a pre-liberalisation India is also stoked by beloved '80s Doordarshan references: if Saajan Fernandes wallows in his wife's video recordings of Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, the masterful casting of Bharti Achrekar instantly evokes the heartwarming Wagle ki Duniya. As the upstairs Deshpande Aunty who never appears on screen, Achrekar's chatty conversation is not just a reassuring presence in Ila's lonely life but offers the Indian viewer of a certain age the delight of recognition. There are silly, unspoken jokes that only a Hindi movie watcher would get: like the ridiculous incongruity of Irffan's grave Saajan Fernandes being linked to the hangdog Sanjay Dutt, when Ila asks Aunty to play an audio cassette of Saajan.

The Lunchbox turns out to be a rather rare sort of dabba – a desi meal meant for export, but with enough layers for Indian audiences, too.

 
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