Puzzle stars two of my favourite actors on the top of their game in an American remake of an Argentinian film. Irrfan Khan has been widely recognised as a great actor within India and around the world for both festival films and international popular films but Kelly Macdonald has often been excellent but underused as a supporting actor. In Puzzle she is given the lead role for what I think might be the first time in 52 films. (Later, I realised I’d seen her in the lead in just her second film, Stella Does Tricks in 1996.) How did she manage to be overlooked for so long for a lead role? I’m tempted to say that is the ‘puzzle’ at the centre of this film and in a way it is.
Although the narrative involves jigsaw puzzles and a national ‘jigsaw puzzling competition’, it is really a narrative about a woman who attempts to solve the puzzle of her own life – in effect to ‘find herself’ as the modern cliché has it. And it’s perhaps the case that few actors could pull off the performance achieved by Ms Macdonald that makes the film particularly interesting. She plays Agnes, the forty-something mother of two sons, Gabe, planning to go to college, and Ziggy, reluctantly working in his father’s garage repair shop. The father is Louie. Agnes is still living in her father’s old house in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her family are Hungarian-Americans and besides the housework she is a member of the Churchwomen’s Guild of her local Catholic church. Everybody takes Agnes for granted, more in an unthinking than an unkind way.
She seems to be even putting on her own birthday party to entertain everybody else. Discovering (or ‘rediscovering’) her genius for puzzle-solving one day leads her into another world and into a ‘partnership’ with Irrfan’s character, Robert, a wealthy man in Manhattan. She then finds herself commuting twice a week to New York to meet Robert and practice solving jigsaw puzzles against the clock. Sketching out this bare outline, I realise how conventional a story it must sound. I was reminded of another American re-make, that of the Japanese film Shall We Dance? (1996). Fortunately, Puzzle is much better than the dreadful US version of that film with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez (2004). The more I think about Puzzle though, the more I realise that it is a familiar story in terms of structure in which a husband or wife discovers something they can do well after many years of routine, but they don’t tell their family – with the inevitable consequence that they will be found out. But Puzzle is interesting because Kelly Macdonald is mesmerising and because the script by Oren Moverman, Polly Mann based on the Argentinian original, Rompecabezas (2009) written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff, is carefully nuanced and only occasionally a little too clever. Oren Moverman is a writer-director I remember for The Messenger (US 2009)
What makes a film like this is the portrayal of characters who seem human because they aren’t perfect. Agnes certainly isn’t. As her confidence grows she perhaps says and does some things that might be hurtful and perhaps arising from resentment. Robert too isn’t perfect. Louie (David Denman) is a good man let down by a lack of education and an insensitivity perhaps caused by living in a relatively closed kind of community. He loves his wife. His sons are each differently challenged by the situations they find themselves in. The narrative ending works well for me. In real life there are always loose threads and things we could do, but which have consequences we might not be prepared for. It sounds trite but life is a puzzle. Macdonald and Khan are excellent – and so are the rest of what is a strong ensemble cast.
The technical credits are worth mentioning. Agnes and Louie’s house is quite dark and subdued inside and outside seems to be located in a fairly prosperous but conservative area. I’m still unsure how wealth and social class work in the US since Agnes is not employed and the repair shop is not making big profits, yet Louie has in the past managed to buy land in the interior which has a cabin, a lake and fishing rights. Robert’s house in Manhattan is spacious and beautifully furnished and the journey for Agnes by train and on foot across Manhattan is well presented through the cinematography of Chris Norr. The score by Dustin O’Halloran is effective without being overpowering. I was also struck by the subtle changes in the costumes worn by Kelly Macdonald, though when she arrives in Manhattan wearing a bright red sweater, the outcome feels predictable. The film was directed by Marc Turtletaub, best known in the film industry as a producer of independent films such as Little Miss Sunshine (US 2006). He chose to direct this film because of a personal interest in the script since he saw in Agnes a character resembling his own mother, to whom he dedicated the picture.
Puzzle is a quiet but strong and satisfying film that I found to be affective. In the UK the film is distributed by Sony Classics, opening on ‘100+’ screens. That’s quite a few screens and suggests either a high-profile ‘specialised film’/art film or a mainstream film that the distributer isn’t quite sure of. My feeling is that Puzzle is the latter. It could appeal to a fairly wide audience and we saw it in a late morning slot in a multiplex with just a tiny audience. It seems to be on at odd times here and there with little promotion. It has little chance of benefitting from ‘word of mouth’ if potential audiences struggle to find a screening. I’ve found this is a problem with Sony Classics before (e.g. with the excellent Maudie (Ireland-Canada 2016)). Do try and see Puzzle if you can, it’s well worth the effort.
Like Gurinder Chadha, the co-writer and director of Qissa, Anup Singh, was born in East Africa into a family which had originally had its home in Rawalpindi in Northern Punjab before Indian Partition in 1947. Unlike Chadha he attended university in Bombay and then FTII in Pune for his film school. His approach to a film about Partition might therefore be expected to be different to Viceroy’s House, but also to have a personal dimension. Qissa is a co-production with a mixed crew and creative inputs from Europe and India. The film was shot in (Indian) Punjab after a long search for locations.
Introducing his film at HOME during the Indian Partition weekend, Anup Singh told us that ‘qissa‘ means a ‘tale’ – the kind of story that might be told in a community setting. He also suggested that many such tales involved lovers from different sides of a barrier such as a river. These stories would then involve various forms of ‘crossings’ or ‘transgressions’ as the lovers attempt to meet. Cue a very different kind of ‘Partition’ story.
The film is dominated by the central performance given by Irrfan Khan as Umber, the head of a Punjabi family whose village has been attacked at the time of Partition in 1947. It’s a tribute to both the director and the other excellent actors in the cast that this powerful central performance doesn’t derail the narrative as a whole. After committing an act of revenge, Umber moves his family from what has become ‘Pakistani Punjab’ to ‘Indian Punjab’ and begins a new life working in forestry. At the moment his village was being attacked, Umber’s wife Mehar (Tisca Chopra) was giving birth to the couple’s third daughter. When, a few years later, a fourth child is born, Umber decides that this is his son and he proceeds over the next few years to treat ‘Kanwar’ as a warrior Sikh who will hunt and grow strong. He ignores the evidence that this is his fourth daughter, not his son. In the second half of the film an incident pushes Kanwar (now played by Tillotama Shome) into a marriage prescribed by local custom. Something has to give as Kanwar moves to live with Neeli (Rasika Dugal).
This second half of the film, as the title suggests, moves into the realm of a form of ‘magic realism’. The whole film is constructed so carefully, with close attention to details of the mise en scène, that the shift does not seem abrupt but instead seems to develop naturally. The narrative resolution then returns us to the opening shots of the film so that the whole narrative seems like a dream (or a nightmare) – and one that will return. A recurring motif is the well in the courtyard of each of the two houses that the family occupies. In the Q&A, Anup Singh told us that his grandfather had told him that in the terror experienced in the moment of Partition, many women in the Punjab had hidden in wells. In one scene in the film the young Kanwar, having watched his/her father washing, is lowered down the well in the bucket with sunshine penetrating the lower reaches of the well. At other points in the film, the dominant component of the image seems to be a mirror, an open window or doorway, a shaft of sunlight or the reflecting surface of a pool of water. It’s not difficult to recognise the metaphor for the trauma of Partition, although it is presented, very beautifully, in these symbolic images – and is open to interpretation of what it actually means for the individuals concerned.
It was only after the screening that I fully appreciated that the crossing of the river and the journey to a new location forced on the family by Partition is an echo of Ritwik Ghatak’s thematic concerns in his Bengali films. But the ‘absence’ in Anup Singh’s film is the central symbol of the train which seems to appear in every other Partition film narrative that I can remember and is clearly present in Ghatak’s Cloud-Capped Star – which was screened in Manchester immediately before Qissa.
As far as I am aware, Qissa was not released in the UK, but has appeared in one of Channel 4’s seasons of Indian films. This Punjabi language film was released in cinemas in its four co-production countries. The curator of the Partition Weekend, Andy Willis, told us beforehand that when he had started to think about the films to show, Qissa had been the film he knew must be included. I’m glad he gave us this opportunity to see this fine film. Here’s a trailer for a Dutch release (with English subtitles):
Piku is one of the best releases this year in the UK. I laughed, fell in love, reflected on the faded grandeur of Calcutta and admired the writing, direction and central performances. The music by Anupam Roy wasn’t bad either.
The eponymous character is an attractive young woman (played by Deepika Padukone), a singleton of around 30 working in Delhi as a partner in an architectural design company. Her busy life is complicated by the demands placed on her by her 70 year-old widowed father, a hypochondriac constantly complaining about his constipation. When he demands a trip to Kolkota to visit the house he still owns (and where his brother still lives) Piku discovers that her reputation as an angry passenger has alienated all the taxi drivers in a local company. Father decides they must be driven to Kolkota (1500 miles away), so the taxi company boss (who has his own reasons for leaving Delhi) has to take the job himself. Since father is played by Amitabh Bachchan and the taxi boss by Irrfan Khan we are guaranteed an entertaining ride.
At this point I should point you to Omar Ahmed’s posting on the film. I’m indebted to Omar for several insights into how the film works. I’ll try not to repeat things he says and offer instead some extra points. I first came across the director-writer partnership of Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi when I watched and very much enjoyed Vicky Donor (India 2012). That film dealt with the social issue of sperm donation and the idea of ‘designer families’ and the impact on the sperm donor. It too employed comedy and featured a Bengali family brought to Delhi (Sircar is a Bengali). The effectiveness of that film derived from the acute observation of people in potentially embarrassing situations in which they are allowed to react naturally. This is a form of social comedy approached with genuine humanism and in Piku Sircar and Chaturvedi utilise the family melodrama and the road movie in constructing their comedy narrative. In doing so they create a narrative about a ‘real’ (upper) middle-class Indian family. ‘Real’ in contrast to the ways most families are depicted in mainstream Hindi cinema.
The film could be universal except for the one aspect of Indian middle-class culture that remains beyond my understanding. There is a fourth character in the car – a servant who acts as something like the old man’s ‘batman’. He rarely speaks and is largely ignored by the other three characters, except when he is needed. The careful attention to detail in the script is illustrated by a scene in which at the beginning of the car journey the servant climbs into the front passenger seat next to the driver. The driver refuses to move and apart from a few glances in the rear view mirror, nothing is said until Piku changes places with the servant. Rana, Irrfan Khan’s character is an educated man, a civil engineer who worked in Saudi Arabia before taking over the family business. He needs to assert his social status – important to him as he must grapple with Amitabh’s Bengali patriarch Bhaskor Banerjee. Later we learn that Rana has a Bengali family name (Chowdhury) even if he comes from Uttar Pradesh. This makes him at once potentially acceptable, but also inferior to Bhaskor. These nuances, as Omar suggests on his blog, point us towards the kinds of narratives explored by Satyajit Ray. Piku is a familiar Ray woman – introduced in the opening sequence by a full length poster of Ray. Later she dismisses a potential suitor because he does not appreciate Ray’s films.
Piku has been a big hit in India – and in South Asian diaspora communities overseas. The reviews still reveal a significant portion of detractors – many perhaps angry that there seems so little in the way of ‘plot’ and excitement with three major stars. The music is all used to support the narrative without disrupting it – there are no romance set pieces or choreographed dances etc. Only a bicycle ride through traditional Calcutta (reminding me of Ray’s Mahanagar at times) breaks away from norm. The pleasures in the film come from the script and the performances. In the UK a specialised film distributor was able to make a considerable killing with the ‘Indian Independent’ film The Lunchbox (India 2013) starring Irrfan Khan. Piku has been a success for Yash Raj in the UK (two Top 15 appearances in its first two weeks) but it won’t have been seen by the same audiences that enjoyed The Lunchbox. How to put these two audiences together is an intriguing question – but I wonder if either the Indian or UK distributors really want to try?
It’s somehow indicative of the lack of interest shown by Indian distributors towards audiences outside India and its diasporas that there are no subtitles on the trailers for most new releases (even though the films themselves are subtitled). This trailer over-emphasises the romance elements and the relationship between Piku and Rana is developed in understated and subtle ways.
After a second viewing, my thoughts about The Lunchbox are beginning to crystallise. This is an Indian cultural product which ‘reads’ in some ways (primarily its cinematography and editing) like an American Independent or an international festival film. As one of my regular viewing colleagues said to me, it’s difficult to make out who the audience is intended to be. But it doesn’t seem to matter. The film has been a hit in India and in overseas markets. The narrative is ‘universal’ enough to enable UK audiences outside the South Asian diaspora to enjoy the film without ‘getting’ all the cultural references. Presumably the Indian audiences have become so used to American films that they find the presentation familiar. But there are critics, in India and in the West, who want to argue against The Lunchbox. I’ll explore some of these below, but first I’ll discuss the film as I read it.
The origins of the film are in writer-director Ritesh Batra’s preparations for a documentary about Bombay’s dabbawallahs – the 5,000 strong network of carriers who transport a home-cooked meal to office workers in the city each day. Batra told The Hollywood Reporter that he became more interested in the people at either end of the process, the woman at home and the man at work, and therefore constructed a fictional narrative around the “1 in a million” chance that a meal could be delivered to the wrong person. The two people involved in this mix-up don’t know each other. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a wife trapped in what appears as a loveless marriage and who is trying to attract her husband’s interest by making the best meals she can for his lunch. But the lunches are going to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widower who is considering retirement from his job in a government claims department. Saajan is used to the mundane food that arrives from a contract restaurant and Ila’s meals are a revelation. When the mix-up continues the two, recognising what has happened, begin to correspond and thus begin a tentative epistolary romance.
Batra tells us in the film’s Press Pack that Ila and Saajan are both ‘prisoners’. She lives in a middle class Hindu enclave with little contact with the world outside apart from through her small daughter and an older woman upstairs who we never see, but whose instructions and ingredients improve Ila’s cooking skills. Saajan lives in an old Christian district in Bombay – his family name Fernandes hints at a possible Portuguese heritage long ago. It was only on a second viewing that I noticed the print of the Last Supper on the wall behind the dining table of the family in the house opposite Saajan’s verandah. He is not a very friendly neighbour but he envies something about the lives of the local families, whose children play cricket in front of his house. Batra suggests that Saajan is trapped in the past. Eventually Ila and Saajan will find something in common in nostalgia for the Bombay of the 1980s and for the television serials and filmi music of the time.
Ila also has her mother in another part of the city who is caring for her sick husband, Ila’s father. The key third role in the film, however, is Shaikh, the younger man who is earmarked to replace Saajan. Shaikh is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and is, I think, misunderstood as a character by many Western reviewers. It’s a difficult role to play and Batra went out of his way to cast Siddiqui, arguably the current hot star of independent Indian cinema. Shaikh is a Bombay ‘survivor’, an orphan who has had to fight to make his way in the world. He appears as annoying, almost obsequious in his approach to Sajaan. Part of this is his display of exaggerated mannerisms and speech. (Saajan routinely speaks English at work but Shaikh, like Ila, mainly speaks in Hindi – I wish I could tell if any of the characters speak in Marathi.) Siddiqui is also quite short and the contrast when he stands next to the tall Irrfan Khan is marked. It is important to the narrative that we recognise that Shaikh is annoying – but also that he is genuine in his attempt to better himself and provide for his (future) family. He may lie about his background to help his advancement but his persistence finally begins to break down some of Saajan’s defences against the world. In short, Shaikh helps to humanise Saajan. Although we never see her, Mrs Deshpande, the ‘woman upstairs’ has a similar impact on Ila, though in a very different way.
My worry that the Western audience may not pick up all the cultural clues is based simply on my own experience. On first viewing, I sometimes found myself losing the narrative thread, partly because I was trying to think about aspects of the plot and therefore didn’t concentrate on the detail of what was happening on screen. It was only after I read the press notes and interviews and then watched the film again that it all made sense. Now the narrative seems straightforward. So why did I have problems? I did find Irrfan Khan’s accent for the English dialogue difficult to follow sometimes. I was also confused by some of the many journeys across the city – in buses, taxis, trains, tuk-tuks and Shaikh’s scooter. It certainly isn’t clear to the casual viewer that the three leading characters live in quite different districts, connoting social class, religion etc. Much of the cinematography covering these journeys uses a documentary approach and perhaps the film needs some conventional narrative devices to make these sociological distinctions clear? (Station names? Discussion of districts as places to live?) I certainly stumbled over one destination – Nasik. This is, I think, the third largest city in Maharashtra after Mumbai and Pune. No doubt less stressful than Mumbai, I’m still not clear why it is a place that Saajan might retire to. The confusion over journeys and destinations means that the film’s ending is ‘open’. I’ve seen some US reviews refer to a ‘feelgood movie’. I think that the film is certainly more optimistic than pessimistic about what might happen to the characters but I think the lack of a clear narrative resolution works against the usual meaning of ‘feelgood’ (a term I don’t like very much).
There is cricket in the film and plenty of train travel, but what about music? Music plays an important narrative role at two points, once with a reference to a particular song from a 1991 Hindi film and again in a more documentary style with the singing of a group of dabbawallahs. So the Indian cultural content remains but not the conventions of Indian popular cinema.
The Lunchbox was ‘launched’ successfully at Cannes in 2013 as part of the general celebration of Indian cinema. Crucially, it was then picked up for international distribution by Sony Classics. This meant that there was a marketing push across North America and subsequently in other territories where Sony sold on the rights to high-profile specialised cinema distributors. Indian films targeting diaspora audiences in the UK (and I assume other territories) are usually distributed by the UK offices of major Bollywood companies. They don’t therefore get discussed in mainstream UK media or placed before audiences outside the diaspora in specialised cinemas. The last significant release of an Indian independent film in the UK was Gangs of Wasseypur, but the distributor Mara Pictures, which describes itself as a ’boutique distributor’, did not have the muscle to promote its release properly. The Lunchbox has the backing of the UK’s premier specialised cinema brand Artificial Eye/Curzon. That has made a big difference to its chances of being seen.
So, what does it all mean? And how has the film been received? The best review of the film I’ve found is from the Indian critic Baradwaj Rangan. I read this review after I’d written the comments above and I agree with it 100%, especially the praise for Siddiqui and the analysis of the open-ended narrative. Most of the other reviews aim for a relatively simple acceptance of the pleasures of what is indeed a well-made film with quality performances (I was very impressed by Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan is always worth watching). However, it is a first feature and it isn’t necessarily the ‘best’ of the new independent Indian cinema. It is clearly linked to the work of diaspora filmmakers such as Mira Nair but it is more of a chamber-piece than The Namesake with Irrfan Khan and Tabu. As an ‘opening up’ of the debates which the film has started, I recommend this ‘Minority View’ on Dear Cinema from MK Raghavendra. I don’t agree with everything in his review but what he writes (and the comments he attracts) put the film nicely in perspective. One interesting question is how the director presents ‘nostalgia’ for Bombay in the 1980s and when the narrative is meant to be set. I haven’t been in the city since the 1980s and apart from the increase in traffic and the new cars it looked much the same as I remembered it. Sajaan’s office is piled high in papers with barely a computer in sight. I don’t remember seeing many mobile phones in use. These technologies are mentioned in the film and Ila’s no-good husband fiddles on his phone when he should be talking to her. But Raghavendra asks the reasonable question, why did Batra not allow his two leads to use mobiles? I think there are phone calls at various points but it is a good question. Would it present a problem for the script? (The negative comments on the film tend to blame the weakness of the script.) I did feel that watching Saajan trying to track down Ila by asking the dabbawallahs was rather like watching the father search for his bicycle in Bicycle Thieves. These might seem like trivial points but The Lunchbox, as the significant ‘breakout film’ for Indian independent cinema carries a burden of expectation. I think Raghavendra is partially justified in seeing the film as not being quite sure what it wants to be, caught between an observational documentary style and a rather contrived romance narrative structure.
The real danger is that Western critics will leap on the film as an example of the ‘real India’ – or the ‘real Indian cinema’ without the nuanced perspective the film requires. I’m saddened that this seems to have happened at Sight and Sound, the UK’s film journal ‘of record’. At least The Lunchbox got reviewed when most Indian films on release in the UK don’t (so much for recording UK releases). It’s good that the review went to someone other than the regular reviewer of Indian cinema but unfortunate that the person chosen either knows little about Indian cinema or simply chose to treat the film as a festival film on the American independent model. The review compares the film at one point with Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in terms of representing “contemporary Indian middle-class urban life”!
I hope now to see more recent Indian cinema and to return to The Lunchbox for some further thoughts a little later.