Year Released: 2014
Directed by: Ritesh Batra
Starring: Irrfan Knan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Sidiqui
(PG, 105 minutes)
Genre: Drama, Romance, Indian/Foreign
“Sometimes, the wrong train will get you to the right station.” Shaikh
If you can’t make it to India, take this virtual trip, a culinary adventure and subtle love story set in Mumbai. But don’t expect squalid slums that sing with color. Instead it’s the comfortable gray lives of three lonely souls that need spicing up.
Oddly enough, it all happens because a lunchbox is delivered to the wrong person, in this case to Saajan (Irrfan Khan) a widower about to retire, instead of the disinterested husband of Ila (Nimrat Kaur), whose heart she is trying to win back via his stomach. However, it is the curmudgeon heart of Saajan that she captures.
But not at first, because this misanthrope is almost as perfect at avoiding intimacies, let alone friendships, as he is at keeping the government accounting books.
Ila realizes a mistake has occurred when she tries to wheedle a compliment from her almost mute husband. When he begrudgingly compliments her on the cauliflower, which was not what she spent several hours preparing, she knows the lunchbox has gone to the wrong person and so writes a brief note explaining that in the next day’s delivery.
Saajan reads the note, devours the second lunch; in fact, almost licks it clean, and sends his reply: “The lunch was very salty.” Only after being humbled by Ila’s piquant reply in the form of some very hot peppers, does the unsociable Saajan begin to mend his ways. And so with these first short, handwritten notes begins a tentative friendship that blossoms into something perhaps much more. In the government cafeteria Saajan unwraps the notes in a slow and tantalizing ritual– first the furtive glance around to see no one is looking, then the retrieval of his glasses from their hard case, and finally the savoring of Ila’s longer and more revealing letters, which he begins to relish as much or more than the delicious lunches. As critic Rex Robbins so aptly observes, the director, Ritesh Batra
…allows Ila and Saajan’s relationship to evolve leisurely, like a slow-cooked vindaloo, and the film’s epistolary nature, with Khan and Kaur reading to each other in voiceover, evokes a lost world of earned intimacies and plaintive revelations.
Part of that lost world, at least to most Westerners living in our virtual Facebook/Twitter universe, is the very nature of their communication– handwritten on scraps of paper. Or the accounting job, where Saajan does the everything by hand, using a ruler and pencil as well as his mega gigabot mind.
And there are the spices, supplied by "Auntie," Ila’s older housebound neighbor via a basket lowered down to her window, recalling for some of us the little dog lowered for his walks in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (Lobster Alfredo), also a tribute to simpler times.
Central to it all is the elaborate system for delivering the hot lunches, which first started in 1890 because Indian workers did not like the food served by their English employers. The dabbawalas, the often-illiterate lunchbox delivery workers who inherit their jobs, have an elaborate color coded/marking system for the lunches, which are picked up by bicycle and then sorted onto train coaches before they are unloaded by other local dabbawalas who delivers them. The system runs in reverse each evening, almost like a Mumbai version of the Pony Express with bicycles and electric trains replacing the horseflesh.
Apparently only one in eight million lunches is delivered to the wrong address, a system studied by Harvard as well as praised by ‘The King of England,” as the indignant dabbawala describes Prince Charles when Ila tells him her lunchbox did not make it to her husband.
In addition to the dabbawalas, retiring Saajan’s new replacement also delivers some spice of his own. Shalikh, played by Bollywood regular Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and looking strangely like a young Tony Curtis, as one savvy critic observes, enters as an offending flavor– brash, unctuous, and overpowering, like a strong spice that tries to steal the culinary show. He is more like a used car salesman than an accountant, and with practiced aloofness (actor Irfan Khan being almost a professional misanthrope) Saajan keeps him at arm’s length.
But Shaikh is nothing if not persistent, and as the now grown orphan slices the evening vegetables on his lap while riding home on the train, he is all the while telling the story of his life to Saajan, the captive audience of one seated next to him. Gradually Shaikh becomes the charming storyteller Scheherazade buying one night of life at a time from her grim king. Saajan, the Christian curmudgeon not only thaws; he is is double broiled, the heated Hindi spices and letters from Ila on the one side, and the bubbling warmth of his Muslim apprentice on the other.
Yet, there is an unyielding core of sadness embedded in this fine film, as well as an ambiguous ending that either frees us to render our own ending, or frustrates us if we are looking for a resolution of sorts. We have no rousing score to wash over us like welcome rains, nor a final train station dance scene, like an ode to joy, to lighten our hearts, as we had in Slumdog Millionaire (Indian Chai Tea)
Instead we get something with more depth and texture, or to further our culinary allusions, like a prefect curry this marriage of spices is bittersweet but near perfect. To quote Anthony Burgess,
“The curry was like a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It stunned, it made one fear great art.”
When Saajan complains to Ila that her cooking is too salty, she gets a little revenge by lacing his next lunch with hot peppers. He cools off with a banana. I have a better and tastier way, even if you are cooling off from Texas Barbecue or Mexican chili dishes. It is both tangy and sweet and can even be used as a very healthy dessert.
This authentic Indian dish comes from Suneeta Vaswani, a native of Mumbai and now one of our country’s foremost experts on Indian cooking. She provided several recipes for a chapter in Different Drummer’s Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover’s Cookbook , “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” where the solution to the mystery centered upon curried mutton. Her Kasmiri Griddle Lamb Kabobs were a refined improvement on the curried mutton. Suneet’s menu bubbled over with seventeen exotic spices. In addition to the Kasmiri Griddle Kabobs, it featured Vegetable Pulao, Broccoli with Peanuts, Ginger, and Indian Spices; Prawn Balchow, and Grape Raita with Cilantro, Mint, and Green Chile Spiked with Yogurt.
I have chosen the final dish, Grape Raita, because it is very authentic and yet so simple to prepare, almost as easy as jello, but ever so much more fun. I am sure it will appeal to those of us not accustomed to India’s very spicy dishes. It is often eaten between courses to refresh the palate or at the end of a meal. If you are interested in getting recipes for the whole menu, click for a free download of the first 35 pages of Appetite for Murder here.
Enjoy your food, or as they say in Hindi, “Kripyā bhojan kā ānnaṅd lijīyai.”
Grape Raita with Cilantro, Mint, and Green Chile Spiked with Yogurt
4 cups plain nonfat yogurt
1 1/2 cups seedless grapes
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
1/3 cup mint leaves
2-3 green chilies, preferably serranos
Salt to taste
Stir yogurt until creamy. Stir in grapes. Make a smooth paste of cilantro and mint leaves and chilies. Add to yogurt. Add salt. Chill well before serving.