Ab Tak Chhappan (2004)

Ab Tak Chhappan Poster

The film opens with a pile of clothes and shoes on a beach, and someone whistling “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”. A man is wading in the sea, maybe suicidal, maybe cleansing his sins. Or just washing off the bloodstains on a nice sunny day.

Sadhu Agashe (Nana Patekar) is an encounter specialist. He is honest and pragmatic about what that really means, and is untroubled by any ethical concerns. He is doing a necessary job as the legal system cannot stop gangsters, so extreme measures are required. The cops are basically just another gang in the Mumbai ecosystem. Within the department there are people jostling to take over his prime position. Imtiyaz (Yashpal Sharma) is a sook who wants to be the top cop but lacks Sadhu’s instincts and connections with the useful informers. Shukla (Nakul Vaid) is the wide eyed newbie, determined to deliver justice through state sanctioned murder.

Zameer (Prasad Purandare) is an offshore crimelord, running operations from his luxurious Malaysian retreat. He has a random Australian girlfriend and a strange attachment to Sadhu Agashe, who he often calls for a chat. The cat and mouse game between cop and crim is tense and disarmingly friendly by turns. New Joint Commissioner Suchak (Jeeva) has a different agenda from outgoing Mr Pradhan (Dr Mohan Agashe) and the department has to learn to navigate the new landscape. When Sadhu Agashe is put on the other side of the gun, he uses all the resources at his disposal to try to outwit his adversaries.

Nana Patekar is both ordinary and charismatic, and delivers a compelling performance that carries the film. Agashe is a public servant tasked to kill bad guys and has no obvious ethical issues with his job description. He believes he is taking care of a problem afflicting the general population, the people he swore to protect. His simplicity is deceptive, a man who acts first and stops to feel and care later. His relationship with wife Nammo (Revathi) is loving with lots of nagging and joking in a comfortable couple-y way. She is a political science teacher and yet exhibits no qualms about what her husband does, or the potential danger to herself and their son. I know they have been married for years but I still expected that when Shukla brought his fiancée Vaishali (Hrishitaa Bhatt) over for dinner that they may talk about what it meant, or at least how to get blood out of clothes. It was just such a non-thing in their lives. Revathi is elegant in a comfortable middle class way that suits Nameeta, not blingy or impractical looking. Revathi doesn’t get a lot of dialogue but her silent interactions and bustling about the home show Nammo is the cornerstone of his life. She is warm and grounded which plays well against Nana Patekar’s sharper edges. When people break the unwritten law that keeps family and dependants out of the fray, they mess with the only thing that could influence Sadhu Agashe to be moderate.

Yashpal Sharma and Kunal Vijayakar have prominent supporting roles and play the world weary seen-it-all-before cops to perfection. Justice is not their priority, hitting their targets (literally) is more important.  Nakul Vaid is suitably wide eyed as the rookie on the team. Agashe sees potential in the kid, and shares his jaded wisdom with his protégé but I wouldn’t say the boy was all that innocent to start with. Looking queasy when you shoot someone is not necessarily an indicator of moral fibre. Jeeva is threatening and oozes corruption as Suchak who disrupts the team with his new agenda. Mohan Agashe is weary and understanding as Sadhu’s old boss, the only man he really trusts and respects. Their conversations shed light on Agashe’s motivation and his view of the world, and point out the dangers if he sets a foot wrong.

Shinit Amin set his story in the non-glamorous Mumbai of films like Company and D, a dog eat dog city. Traffic is constant, everyone knows everyone else, the honour code is fairly strong. No matter what happens, gangsters and cops all stop to watch the cricket and even a hardened criminal should be entitled to a cup of tea and a lift home after he has been beaten to a pulp. There are rules. And then there are laws. The film was produced by RGV and it is like the sensible version of (the very disappointing) Department. There is an internal logic, cause and effect, nothing happens out of blind coincidence or guess work.

The background score by Salim-Suleiman is dramatic without being too obtrusive. Their soundscape helps create a sense of urgency and velocity as the protagonists travel through the hurly-burly of Mumbai.  The camera also navigates the rabbit warren of streets homes and office, giving a feeling of being a fly on the wall. Faces are often framed in close up but off centre, maybe to underscore the unknown and secret sides of human nature. Or maybe just because it looks cool. There is a lot going on in the background and periphery as people go about their work and daily business. It’s a lively yet very contained filmi world.

There is a lot of violence and death in the film, but it is almost understated. The characters hardly notice the carnage, so nor did I. I was more interested in the why than the what. And the implication of the corruption of the system and the internecine conflicts was far more frightening than a shooting.

This is a solid film with a well thought out plot and excellent performances. It’s not uplifting but neither is it completely depressing. It is a different way of looking at that filmi chestnut – where do you look for justice? And does doing something bad to prevent something potentially worse ever work out? 4 stars!

The Lunchbox

The Lunchbox

The story of The Lunch Box is charmingly simple – a mistake in the delivery of Ila’s carefully cooked lunch for her husband marks the beginning of a relationship with a curmudgeonly accountant on the cusp of his retirement – yet it opens up the complexities of life in Mumbai and how easy it is to be lonely in a city of millions.  As the story gently unfolds it showcases the famous Mumbai Dabbahwallahs and their phenomenal achievement of delivering thousands of tiffins across the city each day.  Watching the system in action, perhaps the hardest thing to swallow about the film is that a lunchbox repeatedly does go astray, although perhaps there is some redemption in the fact that is consistently it is misdirected to the same person every time. I’m happy to believe such an aberration is possible though, since it does make for an excellent story.

Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is trying to use the old adage that the way to a man’s heart is though his stomach as she struggles to get her workaholic husband (Nakul Vaid) to notice her.  She’s ably assisted in her endeavours by her upstairs neighbour, Mrs Despande (Bharati Achrekar) who supplies spices and recipes along with useful homely advice.  We never see Mrs Despande, but only hear her voice as she shouts down instructions or sends down a basket of supplies, although there is the added bonus of hearing her music – a selection of evergreen Bollywood tunes. As we learn later, her story is also one of isolation, but Mrs Despande seems to have come to terms with her life while her presence seamlessly adds another layer to influence Ila’s own indecision.

The Lunchbox

Meanwhile, Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan) is just biding his time until retirement.  However in the lead-up to his departure, he’s been saddled with the younger Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a tiresomely happy replacement for his own efficient and silent procedures. As the story unfolds Saajan’s loneliness and Ila’s relative isolation become apparent, despite various encounters each experiences during the day.  Saajan’s nightly smokes on his balcony while he watches a family enjoy their communal dinner are the perfect example of his solitude, while Isla’s constant round of household chores perfectly show the constraints of her life.

The LunchboxThe Lunchbox

It’s not at all depressing though.  Saajan and Ila exchange notes every day along with the tiffin, and there is plenty of humour in their written exchanges.  The developing relationship between Saajan and the increasingly demanding Shaikh also provides some comedy, but as it turns out there is more to Shaikh’s character than just comedic relief and he has an important role to play.  Needless to say, Saajan’s silence at work is slowly eroded by Ila’s tasty lunches and Shaikh’s puppy-like demeanour as he clamours for attention and follows Saajan around everywhere.   Perhaps more unexpected is Ila’s realisation that she is responsible for her own happiness, beautifully understated in a scene with her mother (Lillete Dubey) after her father’s death, and gradually developed as the story progresses.

The LunchboxThe Lunchbox

It’s the small touches that make the film so enthralling.  Irrfan Khan says more with his contemplative silences and the quirk of an uplifted eyebrow, than many films manage with an entire screenplay. Although the focus is on ordinary people and their ordinary lives. Ritesh Batra captures some extraordinary moments on film.  The claustrophobia of Mumbai’s crowded trains echoes the self-imposed limitations of Ila’s small kitchen while Saajan’s neatly organised desk speaks volumes about his personality.  As their lives open up to more possibilities, so too their physical surroundings become less constrained and both start to interact more with the world around them.

The LunchboxThe Lunchbox

Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur are both fantastic in their respective roles, creating depth and interest in their characters as each slowly develops throughout the film.  They both fit their characters so well that this just wouldn’t have been as compelling viewing without them. However Nawazuddin Siddiqui is just as good, particularly as his story evolves and we learn more about his background, while there is able support from the rest of the cast.  The screenplay, written by début director Ritesh Batra along with Rutvik Oza, is beautiful in its simplicity, with plenty of unexpected turns in the path and a particularly well thought out ending.

The Lunchbox

Overall it’s a very upbeat story and a breath of fresh air in an industry that is too often obsessed with Hollywood action wannabes and South Indian remakes.  The film has featured in many international film festivals, including Cannes, and I saw it here at the Indian Film Festival in Melbourne. That was a packed showing, perhaps due to Suhasini Maniratnam’s recommendation at her Masterclass and the film received a very positive reception.  The Lunchbox is scheduled for a more widespread release in Australia later this year, and I wholeheartedly recommend watching – you won’t be disappointed!