If you have ever been to Mumbai you will be familiar with the army of dhaba-wallahs who distribute meals (usually homemade) to office workers throughout the city.
Their daily ritual is a miracle of precise organisation. Ritesh Batra’s beautiful film begins with the unthinkable – a lunch prepared for her husband by Ila (Nimrat Kaur) arrives at the desk of Saajan (Irrfan Khan), the wrong recipient.
He scribbles a thank-you note in the empty dhaba to a woman he has never met.
Housebound, with only an (unseen) aunty upstairs for company and advice, Ila replies and their correspondence gradually becomes more intimate and secretive.
It is a simple story, but timeless and tender.
Batra’s approach is unhurried and meticulous, but his most beguiling sleight of hand is achieved through a subtle juggling of time and place. This is modern India, with peak-hour commuters, traffic jams and all of the stresses of our technological age, but, despite it being post the advent of email, Saajan’s busy office is strictly paper and pen and bulging files and calculators – there is not a computer in sight.
It’s this humdrum regimentation that makes Saajan’s stultified world so ripe for the seed of fancy – and it also dispels any lingering doubt that handwritten communication might still be relevant (if nothing else, the movie is a heartening reminder of the power of words before the contagion of puerile texting).
Khan effortlessly evinces the quiet yearning of loneliness, Kaur is captivating as the young wife awakening to her entrapment, while Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Shaikh, Saajan’s underling, provides levity and an outsider’s hard-earned clarity.
Best of all is the ending – Batra sets it up with subtle plot turns but leaves it to you and your own imagination to determine what happens.
Life is never clearcut, after all.
Hurry to see this before it is replaced by glamorous guns and super-heroes – it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of our shared humanity, of how wonderful our day-to-day existence can be on this sad little planet.
~ John Campbell