The Lunchbox: A short film about love
The Lunchbox is a beautiful and charming film, and it has that rare power of great movies
Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata
How many times have you been stuck in a traffic jam, and out of sheer boredom your eye has travelled to an old woman on a balcony, staring vacantly at the traffic below, a housewife valiantly trying to add yet another sari to the clothesline in her tiny balcony, or the caged gaze of a man on a bus?
The Lunchbox is a movie about these ordinary lives and their secret, extraordinary stories.
When writing about The Lunchbox, one is tempted to use a food metaphor, because food is at the core of the film, in the whistle of a pressure cooker, the fragrance of a good curry, the tentative first taste of a dish. However, the movie delivers a much more sensuous experience. You can taste the loneliness, see the love, smell the adultery, and feel the indifference that only big-city dwellers face. You can also sense the need to reach out and touch someone, the way only urban isolation can make you want to.
The movie is a story of misplaced lunchboxes and misplaced lives. The dabba is a device that forges an unlikely bond between two ordinary Mumbai citizens and then moors them in their fragile relationship. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and just-about-to-retire Saajan Fernandes’ (Irrfan Khan) paths cross when a dabba meant for her husband accidentally gets delivered to his office. From then on, it is a journey where you wait eagerly not just for the next delicious tiffin of paneer kofta but also for the thud of the lunchbox on Mr Fernandes’ desk and the sly pleasure of eavesdropping on the notes that he writes to her, and she writes to him. Debutant director Ritesh Batra makes sure that every letter is a surprise — sometimes an anecdote, sometimes a confession, sometimes a question — little revelations that gently steal into the viewer’s heart. As the letters grow longer, they don’t entirely lose the awkward innocence of two people who have never embarked on this journey before.
The director infuses magic into the mundane to propel his narrative forward. A few lines of a song melt into the revelation of a name, the whirr of a ceiling fan ties three stories together and a TV serial becomes a vehicle of memory. As Ila, the young, neglected wife, moves around her small apartment, and Mr Fernandez, the crotchety old bachelor, gazes into the apartment of a family having dinner, their loneliness, their need to be loved, is palpable.
They do find companionship of sorts — Nimrat with her daily conversations with her unseen neighbour (Bharti Achrekar in fine form) and Irrfan who gets saddled with the cheerful, brash, incompetent protégé — Aslam Sheikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Ila and Saajan’s relationship meshes with the others and the film has pensive sub-plots on life, love, and marriage, without distracting the viewer from the main story.
Nimrat lives the character of Ila, giving her grace, beauty, melancholy and resolve. Irrfan might lack Mr Fernandes’ Bandra lilt, but he does not lack the power to move the audience with his dry wit, his quirks and quiet dignity. Nawazuddin’s character, too, is endearing, charming and exasperating in equal measure.
The plot premise of lovers who’ll never meet is not unfamiliar to movie-goers, but Batra gives it such an original and honest interpretation that it makes you feel you have known the movie’s charming protagonists somewhere, sometime, in your life; and they could only live in Mumbai. With economy of prose and eloquent silences, the script makes Mumbai an integral character in the film, and makes you travel through its crowded buses, and busy streets, with unaccustomed serenity.
The mise-en-scène of the movie harks back to gentler, kinder times of the middle class cinema of an Amol Palekar or Sai Paranjape. The use of diegetic sound and tight framing adds to the beautiful, spare narrative, and music is also used as a function of the story. The two songs — from the movie Saajan and the dabbawalas’ patron saint Tukaram’s bhajan — is explored in myriad moods. The film’s editing keeps pace with the old fashioned love story and engages you in the closeness that lovers feel, the landscape they inhabit together, even if they are worlds apart.
The Lunchbox is a small, beautiful and charming film, but it has that rare power of great movies — to move you, to make you reflect, to stay with you even after you have taken your lonely ride back home to some small corner of a big city.