In Bharatanatyam, any dancer’s craft is judged by the varnam. It is the ultimate touchstone to guage ability and creativity. The word varnam implies colours, and usually these longish love paeans of Bharatanatyam portray love and longing in the best sensibilities of shringara rasa extracted from the Indian classical tradition. The varnam is a sensitive essay of love. It is approached in vilambit or Chauka Kalam pace and each line is deliciously outlined unhurriedly, with varying subtleties of nuances and references. The varnam also has a key sentiment, its sthayi bhava and the entire expressional abhinaya is built as flights from that single sthayi which the dancer holds from anywhere from 40 to 60 minutes.
Watching Lunch Box recently, what struck me were the singular parallels in the approach of the Director Ritesh Batra who has also written its screenplay; Ritesh seems to have faithfully followed all the cues from the Bharatanatyam varnam.
The movie is stamped as unusual because of its vilambit pace and its staying true to one sthayi. Like the varnam, Lunch Box is a subtle expression of emotions between the hero/nayaka (Irrfan Khan) and the heroine/nayika (Nimrat Kaur), mediated cleverly by the friend/sakhi who in the film is sakha (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).
In the dance, aware of the smouldering and nascent passion shared by the hero and heroine, the varnam’s sakhi takes forth to one or the other the message of longing and cajoles the one to go to the other.
This is exactly what happens in the Lunch Box. Aware of Saajan Fernandez’ growing disquiet about the heroine whom he knows only through a mis-delivered lunch box, the sakha gradually creates incremental momentum to their tryst.
And like the varnam, the movie meanders through specificity of place in which the hero and heroine are confined. No lotus pond or jasmine bower this; rather the dramatic space is the urban jungle of Mumbai and the claustrophobic confines of a dreary claims office and the rubric middle-class kitchen. Like the characters in the varnam, both the hero and the heroine’s secretly yearn to transcend their confined spaces and journey together to an imagined better place —which in this film is defined as the land of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan.
Like any varnam, where the rasa is realised by floating the libretto on a suitable raga, the film is set afloat on a raga of silence. Incredibly, this film too does not veer away from its preferred pace. Even at moments when the film’s pulse quickens, then too the heartbeat remains constant!
The success of a varnam is its ability to involve the audience in the passions of the characters essayed by the dancer. Lunch Box too engages the viewer by drawing them into the dilemmas of its everyday characters and their moral, sexual and dream dilemmas. Like a varnam the film too ends with an air of un-explicit expectancy. What would be their experiences when they transcend their distance? The anticipated joys in the audience is the rasa of both this film and of the varnam format it follows.