May 4, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Vijaygiri Bava
Gujarati with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place somewhere in Gujarat, India, the dramatic film “21mu Tiffin” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A middle-aged woman in an unhappy marriage gets a boost of confidence when a much-younger bachelor starts paying attention to her because of her tiffin-making skills.
Culture Audience: “21mu Tiffin” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching dull stories about women going through a midlife crisis.
The lackluster drama “21mu Tiffin” is intended as a female empowerment story, but in the end, it’s really a disjointed tale about a middle-aged woman seeking approval from a younger man. Directed by Vijaygiri Bava and written by Raam Mori, “21mu Tiffin” (which means “21st Tiffin” in English) has a very underwhelming and abruptly odd ending that ruins whatever uplifting messages that this movie was trying to convey. The movie has some charming moments, but they are fleeting and mostly overshadowed by repetitive scenes that don’t do much to further the story. “21Mu Tiffin” is based on a short story from Mori’s 2017 anthology book “Mahotu.”
In “21mu Tiffin” (which takes place somewhere in Gujarat, India), Neeta mi Mummy (played by Niilam Paanchal), a homemaker in her 40s, is trapped in an existence where she feels unappreciated by the people who live with her. She’s in a longtime marriage with a husband named Mane Mari Javabdari (played by Deepan Shah), who treats her like a roommate whom he can barely tolerate. He acts like he never wants to remember anything romantic about their marriage.
Neeta and her husband have a 20-year-old daughter named Nital (played by Netri Trivedi), who is living in the same household while on a break from college. Nital is a whiny brat who sulks a lot and has disagreements with Neeta. Nital doesn’t want to do minor tasks that her mother asks her to do, such as doing basic chores around the house or helping her mother make tiffins. Nital just wants to hang out with her friends. Nital tries to be close to her father Mane Mari Javabdari, but he’s emotionally distant with her too.
Neeta’s biggest joy in life comes from cooking tiffins in her kitchen. She has been selling tiffins as a side business, which could be rapidly growing since everyone tells her how delicious her tiffins are. One day, Neeta gets her 21st tiffin customer: a bachelor named Dhruv (played by Raunaq Kamdar), who’s in his early-to-mid 20s. Dhruv eagerly shares these tiffins with his three male roommates, who are all in the same age group. It just so happens that Dhruv’s uncle Bhanudada (played by Hitesh Thakar) sells tiffins too—Neeta was one of Bhanudada’s tiffin customers—but Dhruv thinks Neeta’s tiffins are much better than his uncle’s.
Dhruv becomes such a fan of Neeta’s tiffins, he makes a point of visiting her at her home and giving her profuse compliments about her tiffin making. Neeta feels very flattered, and there are hints that she’s becoming attracted to Dhruv. He seems to know it, and he flirts with her. The movie then becomes a series of repetitive scenes where Dhruv and Neeta spend time together and don’t talk about the sexual tension between them.
When Dhruv comes over to visit, he shows no interest in talking to Nital, who is closer to his own age. In fact, he mostly ignores Nital, even when she’s in the same room. It’s a good thing that Nital doesn’t seem attracted to Dhruv, or else that would be yet another thing for Nital to pout about when it comes to her mother. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t go down a tacky route where mother and daughter compete for Dhruv’s attention.
Later in the movie, Neeta and Nital’s relationship does improve. But other subplots about Neeta’s family members end up being very inconsequential. Neeta’s mother suddenly becomes mute and shows signs of dementia. But surprise! She was only pretending because she wanted attention. When Neeta’s mother does talk, it’s mostly to praise Neeta for her tiffin making. Neeta’s mother seems to think that Neeta inherited these tiffin-making skills from Neeta’s maternal grandmother.
Neeta’s mild-mannered brother and his shrewish wife are not-very-important supporting characters who were put in the movie to recite their forgettable dialogue, with no real insight into who these characters really are. Neeta has a talkative best friend named Purvi (played by Jahanvi Patel), whose only purpose in the movie is to brag about how attentive and loving Purvi’s husband is, with no sensitivity over how Neeta must feel being stuck in a bad marriage. Needless to say, Purvi’s bragging makes Neeta feel worse about her life.
Neeta also has some health problems that aren’t dealt with in a meaningful way and are just used as plot devices that are left to dangle in the movie. She has low blood pressure. And all the work she puts into her tiffin making has given her a stress-related illness that almost leaves her bedridden or on the verge of a collapse, at different points in the movie. These health issues ultimately go nowhere in the story, because they end up being sidelined by the narrative that Dhruv is giving Neeta a new zest for life.
The problem with “21mu Tuffin” is that the movie is just a series of conversations and contrivances that don’t do much for character development. There’s nothing too impressive about the cast members’ acting, which is often hindered by the movie’s bland direction and uninspired screenplay. It seems contradictory that the movie tries so hard to make it look like Neeta is being “liberated” and feeling like an “independent woman” by her tiffin making, and yet she heavily relies on male approval to make her happy.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting male approval all the time, if you’re honest about it. But it’s very off-putting when you pretend that you don’t, by putting up a fake feminist front, and then being hypocritical by having your self-worth wrapped up in getting constant praise from men—and that’s essentially what “21mu Tiffin” does with protagonist Neeta. Regardless of issues related to gender or feminism, the movie seems to miss the point that real self-esteem comes from within yourself and shouldn’t be defined by how many people seem to like you for your cooking skills.
Vijaygiri FilmOs released “21mu Tiffin” in select U.S. cinemas on April 8, 2022. The movie was released in India on December 10, 2021.