Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Movies as horizon broadeners

One wonderful thing movies can do is take you around the world, even if you don't have a passport or the tens of thousands of dollars such a trip would require.

But today, I'm not so interested in vicariously seeing the Taj Mahal or the pyramids or the Great Wall of China. What interests me more is learning about some little pocket of the world I never knew existed, and the rules and routines of that world.

That's what The Lunchbox gave me over the weekend.

I thought there was a decent chance The Lunchbox could be mainstream adult romantic schlock (like The Hundred-Foot Journey) or the type of comedy that exaggerates its Indian characters' traits (like Bend it Like Beckham). In truth, it is a quiet, melancholy little movie that is bursting with a secret life and joy. 

Also, it taught me about the lunchbox system in Mumbai.

Turns out, there's a workplace tradition in Mumbai (falling out of favor, according to my Indian co-worker) that involves an elaborate system of bringing warm lunches to busy workers, usually made by their wives within the past hour or so, and sometimes from restaurants. These lunches are collected in a series of stacked metal tins and then thrown in cloth satchels, which are color-coded to help the oft-illiterate "dabbawalas" deliver them to the correct address. The system, which involves cycling through the rain from homes and restaurants to workplaces in rapid amounts of time, is so accurate -- generally speaking -- that a commission from Harvard University once came to study it. An unlikely flaw in the system is what gives rise to this rich and satisfying love story.

I couldn't decide which I loved more -- the food, its delivery container, or its method of delivery.

The food you have to just imagine. If you love Indian food like I do, you can imagine the kormas, the paneers, the rice and the naan. When done well, it's culinary heaven.

But I should probably show you this lunchbox. You can see it in the poster above, but this is what one looks like up close:

And here are the dabbawallas delivering the food:

I love this, and I'm sorry to hear it's going the way of the dodo. I wish someone would swing by my desk and deliver me a piping hot stack of Indian dishes protected by a cloth satchel.

Of course, this is just a backdrop for the story, which involves a chronic misdelivery of one lunch from a lonely housewife to a lonely office worker. The two strike up a correspondence via notes left in the containers, and it's really quite beautiful. 

But The Lunchbox is the kind of movie that has other delectable treats in its stack. Another way we get a sense of this movie's chockablock Mumbai is that the lonely housewife's only daytime companion is the woman who lives upstairs, known to her only as Auntie, who lowers spices down to the woman via a pulley system between their two apartments. Although the walls are thin enough that she can just shout up and have a conversation, Auntie is nonetheless distant in the following sense: We never see her, and neither does the woman. She's just a disembodied voice, an invisible confidant, tending after her husband, who's in a coma. It's this wonderful image of how people are kind of on top of each other in this city, but still hopelessly isolated.

I'm so pleased that The Lunchbox didn't remind me of either Lasse Hallstrom or Gurinder Chadha, and I can't wait to get another taste of it.

In the meantime, I am totally pricing out those lunchboxes online. 

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