India's Food for the Soul

in 66th Cannes Film Festival

by Rwita Dutta

India was a guest country of the 66th Annual Film Festival of Cannes as it paid tribute 100 years of Indian cinema this year. Yet the scanty presence of Indian films in the prestigious festival raised the eyebrows of film buffs worldwide, especially of those who have had relatively better knowledge about India and Indian films for more than a decade. India has not been represented at all; it’s too big and too diverse for that. With 28 states, 24 languages, numerous dialects and the production of roughly 1,200 films per year, it really needs a mastermind to collect and represent an Indian film section in any festival. And, contrary to popular belief, India is not Bollywood. There are far better films being made in regional languages and it’s a challenge for curators to make the right choice.

Bombay Talkies, Monsoon Shootout and The Lunchbox were shown in various segments of the festival. It was The Lunchbox which saved face, winning accolades throughout and even managing to win an award in the Cannes Critics’ Week. The absence of other regional and independent films from India rendered the representation incomplete. Bollywood is wreaking havoc in the international market with its huge monetary background and enviable networking process. Therefore, Bollywood is being considered as the face of India which is quite a sham. There could be three reasons. Firstly, regional films may have lost the quality control needed to be featured in big festivals like Cannes. Secondly, they may not have the budget to promote their films overseas. Thirdly, it could be the fact that India is too big a market for low-budget films to be consumed at home and therefore they are not really looking for an overseas market via festivals. Thirdly, the line between art and commercial films has long overlapped, thus making the concept of offbeat films redundant. All the bigwigs of Bollywood production houses are headily contributing to the genre of festival films. The Lunchbox is one of them. A product of debutante director Ritesh Batra, it is a joint venture of India, ASAP Films (France), Cine Mosaic (US), and ROHFILM (Germany), with the support of ARTE France Cinema, CNC (France), and MEDIENBOARD Berlin-Brandenburg. Its international sales agent is The Match Factory(Germany).

The Lunchbox is in the vein of films like Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shi nan nu), Ryan Gilbert’s film Eat Pray Love, and Fina Torres’s Woman on Top, dealing as it does with love and food with a very special Indian touch. The theme is unique and received a thumping ovation on a windy afternoon at the Miramar auditorium, where I sat in anticipation on the FIPRESCI jury in the Cannes Critics’ Week. It also received one of the Critics’ Week audience awards. The film comes as a salvation to India as it successfully blends eastern values with western sensibilities. While making a documentary on the dabbawallahs (delivery men) of Mumbai, director Ritesh Batra chanced upon the poignant story of a lonely, widowed man on the verge of retirement and reticent, lonely housewife Illa (played by Nameet Kaur) and an unrequited feeling of love expressed through the medium of food. As the proverb goes: A journey into a man’s heart is through his stomach. Illa does try the same to add spice to rekindle her love life with her ever-reluctant husband. A mistake on the part of the delivery man gives birth to this open-ended, brilliant story of love, anguish, pain and hope. An appreciation note sent by Mr. Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) leads both the characters to do their own soul-searching. To further enhance the flavour comes Aslam Sheikh (played by rising star of India Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an opportunist who is cunning but with a golden heart. The sudden invasion of these two contradictory characters upturns Mr. Fernandes’s otherwise drab life and he wakes up to reconsider what life has yet to offer. The dish the director has cooked called is quite a mouthful, if not transcendental. The cinematography, the editing, and almost all the aspects of film techniques are praiseworthy. The performance of all the three actors is commendable. The invisible but audible friendly neighbour of Illa is indeed a unique cinematic innovation.

Edited by Carmen Gray