November Issue 2013

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 11 years ago

By Bollywood’s standards, The Lunchbox is not your typical love story. There are no grand romantic gestures, or dancing in the rain or a zaalim samaaj threatening to break apart the happy couple. There are no crazy adventures or melodramatic misunderstandings. Instead, there are two lonely people living quiet lives and trying to form a human connection, and a lunchbox sent to the wrong address which helps bring them closer.

The opening scene of The Lunchbox shows Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young housewife sending her small daughter off to school and then lovingly preparing lunch for her husband. She packs the lunch and hands it over to a man on a bicycle laden with similar lunchboxes. We follow the man as he travels the busy roads of Mumbai, riding along in the overcrowded subway, and delivers the lunchboxes to people in their offices during their lunch break. The man is one of the legendary Mumbai dabbawallas who deliver millions of lunchboxes every day through the city. At the end of this cleverly shot opening scene, we figure out that, instead of reaching the desk of her cold and indifferent husband, the lunchbox has mistakenly found its way to another man somewhere in the city.

Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is a widower nearing the tail-end of middle-age, with nothing but his 9-to-5 job and an empty home full of old memories, about to face the prospect of life after early retirement. The lunchbox on his desk contains food more delicious than what his usual food delivery place sends. It’s a happy development in his otherwise melancholy life. When Ila figures out that someone else ate her husband’s lunch, she sends a note in the lunchbox the next day to thank him for liking her food enough to send the box empty — her husband is too indifferent to ever notice the food she sends (a metaphor of sorts for his general apathy in their marriage). Saajan sends back a note in response and so begins a tenuous bond between the two, evolving entirely through their letters in the lunchbox.

Aside from the quietly developing relationship between Ila and Sajaan, there is also Sajaan’s relationship with Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a young man who is going to take over Sajaan’s job once he retires. While at first Sajaan is annoyed by Shaikh’s incessant pestering and cheery mood, they too gradually bond.

The performances by all three, especially Khan and Kaur, are wonderfully nuanced. Sajaan being a man of few words, Khan uses his body language to convey his loneliness and grief, and his lack of interest in life. Whether he is hunched over his desk, crunching numbers, or standing in his balcony and watching as a family eats dinner, his sadness is palpable. That is what makes his smile as he catches a waft of the lunchbox’s aroma or his guarded happiness as he takes out a folded note, such a joy to watch. Kaur’s performance as Ila is equally compelling. You can feel her heart breaking every time her husband brushes her off, and as she tries to find joy in her small household tasks to stave off her growing despair. Even Nawazuddin breathes life into his character, making you root for him immediately.

Written and directed by newcomer Ritesh Batra, The Lunchbox is simple in its story and its execution, and its emphasis on small moments gives it an endearing quality. The way Ila prepares the food, putting in a pinch of haldi with a swish of her wrist, or the way Saajan glances at the lunchbox on his desk every few minutes, waiting for his lunch break to start, gives the character an added depth. Adding humour to the story is Ila’s neighbour, the woman who lives above Ila’s apartment. The two communicate solely through their kitchen windows, with each
calling out to the other for quick chats.

The film is not flawless, however. Some scenes drag on a tad too long, causing occasional flatness in the otherwise tight narrative. And the ending could have had a little more resolution – it was left more open-ended than necessary. If you spend the entire film making the audience fall in love with the characters, it’s only fair that allow them to watch the story reach a reasonably resolved conclusion.
But these flaws can undoubtedly be overlooked because the film succeeds in pretty much everything else. The Lunchbox is equally parts heartwarming and melancholic, and captures not just the love, but also the loneliness and longing of the two characters in perfect pitch. And the message is, at the end of the day, a hopeful one:Kabhi kabhi ghalat train bhi sahi jaga puhancha deti hai.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s November 2013 issue under the headline, “Way to a Man’s Heart.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.