As an experiment I decided to watch Vishal Bharadwaj’s ‘Haider’ and Ritesh Batra’s ‘The Lunchbox’ in parallel. They both depressed me for different reasons. ‘Haider’ for its obvious despairing viciousness and ‘The Lunchbox’ for its stifling Mumbai spaces in permanent disrepair.
Having lived in Mumbai for eight years from 1981 to 1989 and having reported Kashmir for eight years from 1989 to 1997 I know both reasonably well. I have seen both from vantage points that are deeply unflattering for their much trumpeted images of urban vibrancy in the case of the former and unremitting beauty in the case of the latter. In the end, neither the urban vibrancy redeems Mumbai for me nor the unremitting beauty Kashmir. That could be partly because they are both extraneous to the lives of the protagonists.
There is no comparison between the two films at all except that I was common to both as was Irrfan Khan, who plays ‘Roohdaar’ in ‘Haider’ and Saajan Fernandes in ‘The Lunchbox’. He nails both characters with his peculiarly gentle demeanor.
I am not entirely sure if I liked the two movies with the effusion that most others seem to have. Sure, I did watch them with intermittent interest and, in the case of ‘Haider’, admired many of its frames. However, I missed the qualities that many deeply analytical reviewers saw in both. As always, I blame myself for lacking the refinement to grasp poignant subtleties of the human experience.
If I sound less than elated it is not a refection on the quality of the cinema created by Messrs. Bhardwaj and Batra but the fact that I have observed those lives rather closely. Unlike Kashmir, which I visited frequently from the very inception of the insurgency because something was going on there, Mumbai/Bombay was where I lived and where nothing strikingly newsworthy was going on other than the fact that I lived and worked there as a journalist. There was news happening in Bombay, of course, but since I lived there it had a different meaning than Kashmir whose news I was visiting.
It was weird to do back and forth between Mumbai’s less than edifying middle class existence as incidentally portrayed in ‘The Lunchbox’ and Kashmir’s ever present menace of violence, either by the Indian state or the militants, distorting its breathtaking beauty. To Bhardwaj’s credit and under the demands of the plot drawn from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, he does a terrific job of resisting the temptation of presenting Kashmir as a perpetual tourist brochure even while ensuring that his cinematographer Pankaj Kumar captures some memorable frames of a Kashmir in trauma. Even a traumatized Kashmir looks captivating.
Kashmir in fall has has extraordinary light that tends to make everything look benign, including bombed out homes, bullet-riddled walls, sternly edgy Indian soldiers and devious and shadowy militants. I have experienced all that firsthand many times during my reporting trips. So for me the visual references were very familiar. Both the movies are polished products that represent their creators’ visions effectively. One couldn’t ask for much for in cinema.
Now that I am done with my experiment, I will wait for a few more days and watch ‘Haider’ again without looking at it with my personal references. I had already watched ‘The Lunchbox’ once before and I am done with it for now.
These experiments mean nothing to anyone other than me. From time to time, I try to test my brain’s limited capacity for human comprehension. I would grade myself at about 48 percent.