‘Aligarh’, a film about a professor caught in a scandal for having sex with a man in his apartment, reminded me of ‘The Lunchbox’.
Although the two films are worlds apart in their themes, they give an insight into lives of two men who, despite having full-time government jobs, are on the fringes of society.
Professor Siras, played by Manoj Bajpayee, and Irrfan Khan, who is Sajan Fernandes in ‘The Lunchbox’, live by themselves. Siras does his grocery shopping, occasionally picking up some whiskey on his way back home to go with his solitary mehfil of Lata Mangeshkar’s apki nazron ne samjha. Sajan gets his food from a nearby dhaba, has his meal while reading an old book. His post-dinner cigarette breaks are punctuated by scenes of a family having dinner right across his house.
In ‘Aligarh’, a reporter asks Siras whether he married or not. Bajpayee, in a never-before-seen, but brilliantly understated performance, said he was always immersed in his books and Lata. The wife obviously felt neglected and left him. It had nothing to do with “sexual preference”, he said.
Sajan’s lunchbox is a misplaced one, meant for another man by his wife. She prepares the best of meals, thanks to the instructions of her aunty living upstairs. The lunchbox becomes ‘the pigeon’, establishing an exchange of letters between Sajan and the woman.
Sajan’s interest is a married woman with a child, who suspects her husband to be having an affair with another woman. They plan to meet in a restaurant, but that meeting never takes place.
Siras, on the other hand, found a friend – and more than that – in a man who worked as a rickshaw puller.
Siras and Sajan, like any person, are probably seeking more what than they have. And yet, in their search they end up getting entangled in “illicit” desires – one deemed so by the law and the other by social norms. These desires, the films show us, never work out. For one, it costs him his life.
They are the brooding, melancholy and self-effacing anti-heroes, who enjoy their company, their books, and music. Their life is also a reflection of the stigma attached to single men – and women – prone to several deviances by virtue of their single-dom, according to their critics. In the end, it’s about the difficulty of living as an older and single person in India.
While there may be nothing contemporary or novel about such a lifestyle, its portrayal – in two recent films – is particularly striking and probably marks a shift in story ideas of today’s writers.
Are they new age, albeit less intense, Guru Dutts? I wouldn’t know.