“What do you miss about Kolkata?”, asked my colleague when I moved to Bombay. “The food, of course,” I said without a moment’s hesitation. Be it my grandmother and mom’s unique recipes that they have so fondly passed down or the delectable cutlets and chaats that my friends and I used to gorge on from the roadside eateries, certain dishes contain the aroma of memories that linger on forever. Similarly, in both Photograph and The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra intelligently uses food as a metaphor for relationships, memories and feelings.
Photograph opens with a street-side photographer Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who works at the Gateway of India, trying to capture the numerous stories of tourists within his small frames. He keeps repeating the same lines to everyone: “the wind in your hair” and “light on your face” won’t come back like today, and you slowly start believing that indeed the expression frozen in the frame is a happy one.
Rafi has one other habit too – savouring a kulfi on the last day of every month. “Why is it so?,” asks his friend, but before he could relate the story, a more pressing conversation – his marriage – takes precedence.
But Rafi does get to speak his heart out to someone he meets in an otherwise ordinary day, only to share a most extraordinary relationship. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a shy, sheltered Gujarati girl who is silently drowning in the expectations of her parents. She finds solace in meeting Rafi and doing things that are guided by her choices. One rainy evening, as two drenched souls sit in a small restaurant sipping tea, Rafi tells her his ‘kulfi’ tale. “My abba used to get us kulfi on the last day of every month. Since then, I don’t like having it any other day.”
Miloni also opens up about her choice to not have any cola. “When I was a child, my grandfather used to buy me a Campa Cola every day and I loved them. After Campa Cola shut shop, no other cola has tasted the same,” she says. Batra makes it clear that fancy colas or ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ softies, with their glitzy packaging, can never bring back the taste of happiness.
As Rafi and Miloni begin to care for each other, his urge to ‘gift’ her a Campa Cola takes him to one Sodabottlewala, who set up his own factory for his wife after the company did away with the drink. Amid the din of the worn-out machine, as Rafi waits in the dusty room for the old man to seal the bottle, the drink becomes symbolic of the power of love.
In The Lunchbox, too, we see food opening up a conversation between two strangers struggling to deal with a deep void in their lives. While Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a government employee on the verge of retirement, feels claustrophobic in a life devoid of a partner, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a housewife, is frayed by neglect from her husband.
Everyday, she tries out a new dish in the hope that one special masala will remove the staleness from her life and make her husband a little more interactive.
Instead, a stranger becomes her critic when the dabba meant for Ila’s husband mistakenly lands on his desk. A camaraderie forms. “Ila, the food was very salty today” writes Saajan when Ila sends him her husband’s favourite paneer. “Ila, the salt was fine today.” Another note, another hope.
The assurance that Ila too is precious comes not from her husband but through a letter, sealed with love in a lunchbox.
Food connects people in both Batra’s films. But he also points out the frugal lives of people (Irrfan says in The Lunchbox that many make do with just bananas for lunch) in a city that boasts of maximum comforts. All the frames in his movies speak volumes, and we leave the theatre with a sense of hope. Albeit in a parallel world, but we seek for a closure where no good thing ever dies.