Irrfan Khan in a still from ‘The Lunchbox’.
But ‘The Lunchbox’ is all set to go places.
A line in India’s official entry to the Oscars, The Good Road, arouses conflicting feelings. A pimp tells a little girl, pointing to the line of men standing behind a string of barbed wire, “they are here to **** and you are here to be ******”. His matter-of-fact crudity made me cringe. That was my first, top-of-the-head reaction. A man like him may fling this kind of line at little girls he is trying to entice or bully, but to have it said in this fashion pushes you into wondering whether it is for shock value or to peddle Indian rural exotica (look, look, a brothel in the middle of nowhere, all decked up with colourful flags). Or is it just a statement of fact, underlining one of the most poignant scenes in the film, with that little girl poised on an abyss? Will she fall in or get out?
Gyan Correa’s debut feature, Best Gujarati Film at this year’s National Awards, is now headed to a committee responsible for the Oscars shortlist. The arid beauty of Kutch is captured magnificently, and the motley characters who crisscross the highway are all in search of something, halting at stations that may be part real, part metaphor. A young couple, travelling in an SUV, frantically searches for a lost young son; a truck driver and his foul-mouthed cleaner look for a way out of trouble, so does a little runaway girl. The result is patchy: some of The Good Road is most effective when it is the least underscored, reminding you of Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s dream-drowsing style, while some of it comes off as inertly pretty and self-consciously arty.
How The Good Road will fare at the Oscars shortlist party is anybody’s guess. Selection committees work in mysterious ways. Just like the Film Federation of India (FFI), which chose The Good Road from 22 entries. It trumped the film that was considered most likely to squeeze into the last leg The Lunchbox. The declaration has caused heartburn and heartbreak among the makers and supporters of The Lunchbox, which is understandable. That The Lunchbox, full of that crucial universal feelgood factor, was one of the best Indian contenders was clear, given that it has had an enthusiastic reception at several international film festivals, including at Cannes and Toronto. It has found admirers among critics who write in influential trade magazines, and it has just released in India with great word-of-mouth, audience-driven publicity.