One of the most intriguing cliffhangers in recent memory would be of Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox. A middle-class man Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) falls in love with a homemaker, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), who accidentally sends her husband’s dabba to him, leading to an exchange of letters through the lunchbox. Eventually,
India-born German filmmaker Kanwal Sethi’s upcoming Netflix release Once Again explores what could have happened had the two lovers actually met. However, the characters here are different. Instead of the accountant Saajan, there is actor Amar Kumar (Neeraj Kabi) and in place of Ila, there is restaurateur Tara Shetty (Shefali Shah). After years of talking over phone calls, and notes exchanged through the lunchbox, Amar chooses to drop by her restaurant. Initially astonished, she soon warms up to the idea of putting a face to their conversations, but only to realise that people around them are watching.
She is a widow, working tirelessly and struggling to get her son Dev (Priyanshu Painyuli) married to the love of his life. He, on the other hand, enjoys all the luxuries but not that of being with his daughter Sapna (Rasika Dugal), since he failed to get custody after divorce. Clearly, the economic divide is quite stark here, in relation to The Lunchbox.
Once Again steers clear of the perception that it is a food film. There are barely any close-ups of delectable food or tender hands transmitting warmth and love into it. Instead, there are only rushes, accompanied by Tara who is visibly seen sweating and wiping her face with her simple South Indian cotton sari. There is no method to her madness as she makes food with a sense of clinical detachment, looking forward only to the 10 pm call that she will make to Amar, once he has enjoyed her food.
There is a selfish tinge to her personality, which originates from the survival instinct she developed when her husband died. She gave up classical dancing, a hobby that she was proud of, in order to tend to her children’s needs. In a casual conversation with Amar, she mentions she is afraid of the sea. Metaphorically, she hesitates to dive deep into herself. Amar responds by saying he is afraid of the mountains, of scaling the heights that he does not even aspire to conquer. He finds a refreshing soundboard in Tara, who has not seen any of his films, and thus refuses to be a yes-man, unlike most of the people who surround him all the time.
Shefali proves in every frame what a grossly underrated powerhouse of talent she is. Her loquacious eyes express rage with as much ease as they do love. She is custom-made for a film that plays with silences and gives little scope for its actors to be guarded by the shield of superfluous dialogues. Here, the dialogue takes a backseat giving the spotlight to silences and facial expressions. She looks ethereal throughout the film, as she carries off simple clothes in plain solid colours. Priyanshu, as her son, is commendable and holds his own, even in confrontational scenes.
Kabi seems to be on a roll after Hichki and Sacred Games. Once Again (pun intended), he is measured and theatrical in parts where he is supposed to be. It is refreshing to see him front a film. However, this writer believes he has still not delivered his best performance yet. Hopefully it will be his the next one. A special mention also to his onscreen daughter Rasika. She switches between her sprightly self and insecure alter ego so effortlessly that it appears unworldly.
What the script does not take full advantage of is the chemistry between the two actors.
Given they are veterans, it takes them no time to create the spark of their old school romance. Sethi, however, tries to force the chemistry on his actors by incorporating a liberal dose of cinematic pauses into the narrative. The dialogues are also not as profound; in fact, the actors are so amused by seemingly normal or routine exchanges that it feels they have an inside joke we aren’t privy to. The meditative pace of he film starts to get to the audience after a point.
The editor is not to be blamed as much as the director and writer, who give excessive breathing space to every scene. Accompanied by silence and Talvin Singh’s unfeigned renditions, Eeshit Narain’s cinematography is a delight to more than one sense.
Once Again shines in its contemplative space though it offers little meat to chew on. What one can certainly relish is the beautiful way its leading lady goes about doing her chores, oblivious of the world that she inhabits and also of the inseparable charm that she brings with just her presence.