Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"A Matter Of Time (Conclusion)"

A recent movie I saw rekindled the thought that I would have had a better shot at being a successful screenwriter if I were writing movies in India.  I don’t mean writing screenplays for the American market but having an office in India.  That would be one heckuva a commute. 

I realize it is unlikely that that’s what you thought I meant.  As if people believe that success in the movies has anything to do with where you write the script.  (Although seeing all those screenwriters typing away at Starbucks suggests that a lot of people believe it’s there.)

What I mean is I can imagine being more successful writing an Indian style of movie.  By which I do not mean a Bollywood epic – I have little facility for lavish production numbers.  And I would have no idea what to do with the elephants.

Now that I think about it, it is not just India that I am talking about.  There are clearly places in the world where my penchant for “slice of life” storytelling is more compatible with those places’ narrative proclivities.  Besides, India, Manchuria also comes to mind.  My preferred approach fits quite easily into the Manchurian mode of storytelling.  Reading one of my screenplays, they may well imagine me to be a born and raised Manchurian… who is unable to speak Manchurian or ride a yak.  But boy, do I write like them.

(Of course all bets are off if, in India and Manchuria, your chances of success are based primarily on who you know.)

The Indian movie I saw recently was called The Lunchbox.  Its plot concerned a woman adrift in a loveless marriage who, in an effort to rekindle her husband’s affections, prepares these sumptuous gourmet lunches for him, which she then hands over to a company specializing in delivering such prepared lunches to workplaces throughout the vast and complicated city. 

(And incredibly effectively it turns out.  Harvard researchers have studied this cultural phenomenon and found it to be a model of hyper-efficiency.  That’s a dream come true, isn’t it?  You pay a fortune to send your offspring to Harvard, and they end up studying “lunch delivery” in Mumbai?  Then, of course, they graduate from the place and run for president.)     

As luck – or, this being India, Fate – would have it, this time, the delivery service uncharacteristically screws up.  (Either Harvard wasn’t studying them that day, or they were, but they deliberately ignored this exception in order not to muddy up their conclusions.) 

As it turns out, the woman’s gourmet preparations are mistakenly delivered not to her (it is later revealed) philandering husband, but to an about-to-retire widower corporate accountant drone, whose current existence is on a low and unsatisfying flame.  In short order, the two strangers are connecting through increasingly personal handwritten notes, passed between them secreted in the metal containers in which these multiple-course gourmet delights (which he is crazy about) are delivered.

That’s the whole movie – two strangers accidentally connect and forge an anonymous, gradually escalating relationship.  Nobody’s a terrorist.  Neither of them  has a mysterious past.  Just two lonely people, struggling for happiness in a vast and uncaring Indian metropolis.

When a movie is not “plot” or “action-heavy”, there is time and opportunity for the inclusion of exquisitely observed details, of which The Lunchbox is enjoyably replete.

The woman exchanges cooking ingredients with her (unseen) “Auntie” by means of a wicker basket, which is dropped down tied to a rope. 

While enjoying his sumptuous lunches prepared by a stranger, the accidental recipient is uninvitedly joined by an annoying underling, whose own lunch every day consists of an apple and a banana, and who is intent on sharing the palate-pleasing delicacies, whether his boss wants him to or not. 
The audience looks on as the letters, all read in “Voice Over”, reveal a slow but increasing level of intimacy.  In one later one, the man relates the story of having been groped on the subway on his way to work, and as the event is visually recreated, we discover that the “groper” is a wickedly twinkly female Senior Citizen.

Well worth the price of admission by itself – for me at least – was a tour de force exhibition by the man, lunching with his unwelcome coworker, feigning surprise at finding that day’s secreted note, miming absently tossing it away, but then finally, in a throwaway “What the heck” moment, deciding to slip the unread message (which he is aching to look at) casually into his pocket.  

This quietly hilarious vignette, a wonder to behold lasting maybe ten or so seconds, simultaneously communicates half a dozen conflicting emotions, all of them revealing of character, but none of them essential to the action, which, bare bones, is simply, “He discovers the note and he slips it in his pocket.”

The only “off key” element in the entire movie is its confusing stab at a “happy ending”, seemingly mandated by producers, to placate the predilections of the American marketplace.   

“They enjoy it when ‘Love conquers all’.”  (Spoken with an Indian accent.  Oh, maybe I should have put that in front.  Sorry.)   

They tacked one on, but the filmmakers hearts were demonstrably not in it.  Plus, they were terrible at it.

“We have little experience with ‘Happy endings.’” (Spoken with an Indian accent.  Oh, I did it again!)

What is remembered in the end is not some convoluted storyline or the breakneck editing (American movies are screened for an audience of ADD sufferers, and if they start fidgeting, they go back to the editing room and speed things up.  It seems like.) 

My mind’s eye recalls with enduring satisfaction The Lunchbox’s many “Incidents of the heart”, especially the repeated sublime moment each time the man unpacks the food containers in anticipation, first, of their delicious contents, and later, of reading the latest communication inside.  As an audience member, it was an unforgettable pleasure reading the surfacing reactions on actor Irrfan Khan’s seemingly immobile yet somehow still communicative face. 

“Little moments” – that’s my favorite.  That could be why, in the end, my skills are better suited to blog posts than writing feature-length movies.

Although, I am telling you, if I were living in India…


Siran said...

Just read about Lunchbox last week and put it on my Netflix list. Sounds interesting and far from the routine stuff that seems to be released every week. I don't often watch movies w/sub-titles but this one sounds like it's worth the added effort.

Mike said...

Have you been holding out on us, Earl? Do you watch films and TV with subtitles?
(There's lots of good subtitled TV around.)