Out of the Dabba

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Acting, according to Nimrat Kaur of The Lunchbox fame, is a lie well told

The Nimrat Kaur who walks briskly into Pali Village Café in Bandra on a recent Wednesday evening is expectedly different from the Nimrat Kaur who sits anxiously at Koolar & Co Irani Restaurant in The Lunchbox. That Nimrat, as Ila, is unhappy in her circumstances and too burdened by them to take care of her appearance. The Nimrat at Pali Village Café, on the other hand, is a woman enjoying the best phase of her life so far. She is also decidedly glamorous.

Kaur does not need advice on how to look pretty. She has been in showbiz since 2004, doing music videos, commercials and theatre. But it is tempting to imagine her getting fashion tips from Mrs Deshpande, Ila’s chatty upstairs neighbour in The Lunchbox.

“Interview pe jaa rahi hai?” (Going for the interview?)

Haan aunty.”

“Leave your hair open. Wear the beige singlet from Mango, and the H&M skirt, and the black jacket you bought at a flea market in Brooklyn.”

“It’s called a throw-on, aunty.”

Wahi, wahi” (That’s the one.)

In addition, she wears uncut diamond earrings presented to her by her mother, Avinash Kaur, and an IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph. By way of perfume, there is Classique by Gaultier, which comes in a curvy bottle shaped like a woman’s torso.

The Lunchbox is not a film without blemish. There should be at least one exchange between Ila and her husband Rajeev before she takes a decision about their future. It also needs one scene explaining how Rajeev goes day after day eating the wrong lunch. Perhaps the message is that he doesn’t care. But it seems unrealistic that he does not realise he is eating food cooked in a canteen. These, however, are minor flaws. For the most part, The Lunchbox is that rare Hindi film worth its hype. Its central female character Ila is essayed with sincerity and control by Kaur. Votaries of loud films will say that over-the-top is harder to do than subtlety. But it is about what’s better, not tougher.

“It has turned out to be much more than a film. It’s a gift wrapped with a bow. I’ve got so much love,” Kaur says, depositing the Trident gum she’s been chewing into a white tissue when her cold coffee arrives. Music from the Paris Café and Gypsy Jazz channels on plays in the background. Kaur is pally and unaffected. She laughs a lot and slips into conversational Hindi from time to time. “I didn’t expect the film to do so well at a commercial level. There are perceptions people have. Make-up nahin hai yaar, sad lag rahi hai, art film lag rahi hai (There’s no make-up, pal, it looks sad, it looks arty). It takes a lot to get people to the theatres. But it can happen.”

Though Kaur’s life is happier than Ila’s, she has known pain. On the morning of 17 January 1994 in Verinag, Kashmir, Kaur’s father, Major Bhupender Singh, left home for work. It was the last time his wife and daughters—Nimrat and her sister Rubina—would see him. He was abducted and killed six days later by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. That year on 13 March, Kaur’s birthday, he was posthumously awarded India’s Shaurya Chakra.

“I still haven’t gotten over his loss,” Kaur says. “In fact, it gets worse—also because it was so violent. He was very invested in me. He’d write my debates, for example. I still feel his blessings.” Asked if the experience reflects in her work, she says, “I don’t let it. It’s something very private.”

While her father was alive, the family lived in many places in India. “Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Patiala, Bhatinda, Pune and finally Kashmir,” Kaur says. She changed schools six or seven times. After her father’s death, the family moved to Noida, where her grandparents lived. Kaur finished schooling and later went to Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce. She says she has enjoyed performing ever since she was a child. “I liked to make up stories, the ability to lie and create a reaction. That is acting. It is a lie well told.”

In 2004, she came to Mumbai to become an actress. Asked if she had a fallback option, she says ‘no’. “I did Science in school, Commerce in college, but nothing resonated with me as much as acting,” she says. Finding work was not easy. She got her first commercial, for Asian Paints, after some 80 auditions.

But a little while before that she featured in a music video for the song Tera Mera Pyaar by Kumar Sanu. “That set the ball rolling. I got a lot of ad films.” Around 2009, she started doing theatre. “That gave me acting experience. With commercials, I knew how to look pretty. I knew how the camera worked. But I didn’t know the real work that well. That came from theatre.”

Kaur says she did not go to producers or directors to ask for assignments. “I did not subscribe to that mentality.” When told she is lucky to have still done alright, she reveals an ambivalence about attributing things to luck. “Kehne ko sab luck hai, kehne ko luck nahin hai (You could say it’s all luck, or you could say it isn’t). But I will tell you where I was lucky. I was lucky not to have been born ten years earlier.”

“There was a time when work for women was very limited. It was either this or that. There were very few actresses that could walk the thin line. Now I can get work with who I am, with the way I look. There are gorgeous women around. Look at a Nargis Fakhri. She is stunning. I love her. But there is a much more systematic approach now. I don’t know if a Lunchbox or Peddlers [last year’s much-appreciated indie, which also featured Kaur] would have been possible ten years ago.”

In all of The Lunchbox Kaur wears as many outfits as a mainstream heroine would in a single song. “Six ill-fitting salwar kameezes, no make-up.” She stopped threading her eyebrows, stopped running the 6-7 km she runs on Juhu beach and did not even wash her hair regularly.

Asked if she felt worried about exposing herself, warts and all, to the world, she says, “I think there is beauty in flaws, yaar. The idea of beauty needs to be redefined. It’s also about characterisation. I had to look loveless, neglected, beaten down by life, but not dead. I know for a fact [that] a disconnect happens when you are a viewer and you see a film in which a gorgeous woman in expensive clothes is placed in a really poor household. You think, ‘Okay, she looks stunning, but she looks too rich to be in this house’.”

These are objective observations and not digs at commercial cinema. In fact, she likes commercial cinema. “I loved Yeh Jawaani Hain Deewani. That’s commercial cinema. It has to be sensible. It has to be fun.” Perhaps she has a message for mainstream directors when she says, “And it’s not like I haven’t done that kind of work. I have done all kinds of roles in theatre.” She also played a small part in the profoundly titled Luv Shuv tey Chicken Khurana.

Asked if she will do an item number, she looks taken aback. “I don’t know. But I believe there is a spectrum even within item numbers. There are different kinds of item numbers.” I tell her that while that may be so, everyone knows that item numbers are mainly for...

“Titillation,” she says, completing the sentence. “It’s a dilemma,” she adds, “and these decisions are often instinctive. I still believe there are different types of item songs. I will cross that bridge when I come to it. But I’m not repulsed by everything I see [in item sequences].”

Surprisingly for someone who always liked performing, Kaur did not watch a lot of films growing up. But the two actresses she says she enjoyed watching are both commercial cinema stars: Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi. “I used to love Madhuri. As girls you don’t like heroes as much as heroines. You want to be them. I grew up watching films like Dil, Beta. I loved Sridevi in Chaalbaaz, Mr India.”

Of the international firmament she likes Meryl Streep. “Meryl Streep has a fire you can’t get enough of. And she has done her share of films that you don’t expect her to be in. Ones that make you think ‘Why is she here?’ But she did them because she needed to do them at that point. I think, somewhere, you need to keep your life interesting as well.” She seems to relate to this approach. “A lot of good decisions and bad decisions have got me here. Just because my work now is going to be public, it is not going to make me fear failure. If I do a film and am rubbish in it, it’s fine yaar, what’s the big deal? It’s just a career, not life.”

Life, meanwhile, is not bad at all for Kaur. I ask her about the whirligig of glamour, especially the Cannes Film Festival, which she has been attending for two years now. The mention of Cannes provokes an awed, stretched out “Ohhh.” Travel is her big poison. “I spend all my money on it.” Spain fascinates her but she knows France better and has enjoyed her time there. “I can go on about Cannes for hours,” she says, pointing to the voice recorder on the table.

“The first time I went there [as a Peddlers cast member], I was overwhelmed by the place. It was my first time in Europe. Everything, right from the colour of the Mediterranean, was new. I could be awake all day and night and yet not have enough of it. The second time was when Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddique) and I travelled for The Lunchbox.”

Very animated now, looking like an exclamation mark sipping cold coffee, she narrates one story after another. She got locked out of her apartment, making her wistful about the neighbourhood chaabiwala (keysmith) in India. (“Where are those guys when you need them?”) She had a pleasant conversation with a man who she later realised was acclaimed documentary maker Asif Kapadia, whose work she admires. (“What a guy! We’re still in touch.”) She saw a grinning Jean Dujardin fleeing photographers. Asked if she rubbed shoulders with any international stars, she jokes, “Ya, Brad and I…”

She visited St Paul de Vence, a medieval French village on top of a mountain, home to the painter Marc Chagall, among others. She enjoyed the perks of the fest. “There is this VIP gift lounge at the Carlton Hotel. It’s like a two-bedroom suite. There are counters for clothes, accessories, shoes, perfume, you name it. You just have to say what you want and just pose with it, and that’s it, off you go with the stuff. You just need space in your luggage.”

But like any professional in any field, Kaur’s biggest high at Cannes came from the appreciation of her work. Charles Tesson, artistic director of the Critics Week at the Festival, gave her a glowing introduction before the screening of The Lunchbox. “It was all in French but it was something along the lines of modern-day (in an attempted French accent) ‘Charulata, Madhubala, Sharmila Tagore’. I tried hard not to giggle and [to be] be composed about it.”

The applause at the end of the screening was even more special, she says. “The film ends with the dabbawallahs song, [a Sant Tukaram bhajan], and the audience started clapping to that rhythm. It was deafening. There was a standing ovation. We [the Lunchbox team] were just looking at each other.”

A favourite saying of Kaur’s is, “Samay se pehle aur bhaagya se zyaada, na kabhi kisi ko kuch mila hai, na milega (Before one’s time and more than one’s destiny, no one ever has nor ever will receive).” Her own time surely seems to have come. How much she will receive remains an open question.