Film of the Week: The Lunchbox
Traditional wisdom has it that the more culturally specific a story, the more likely it is to attain universal resonance. Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox could be used as Exhibit A to support that proposition—and the phenomenon on which the film is built is very specific indeed. Set in the everyday working world of Mumbai, Batra’s feature is built on the Indian custom of lunchbox deliveries. In Mumbai particularly, armies of food delivery men, known as dabbawallahs, bring lunchboxes to the workplace: these are round, stacking metal boxes filled with hot food usually prepared by an office worker’s family or meal suppliers; at the end of the day, they collect the boxes and take them back home. According to a possibly apocryphal Harvard study invoked in the film, only one such box in a million ever reaches the wrong destination, and The Lunchbox weaves a delicious scenario of what might happen in such a case.
At the start, we see a young Mumbai woman, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), preparing a box for her husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid). As she cooks, she takes guidance from her “Auntie,” an elderly upstairs neighbor who advises her in shouted instructions on how much of which ingredient to include in each dish. The lunchbox is placed in a turquoise fabric bag, collected by a dabbawallah and transported with thousands of other boxes, all in different wrappers. We follow the box all the way to its destination, from a short bicycle journey to transportation on a rack perched on a man’s head, then on a train—and in this part of the film, we’re watching Mumbai’s real-life dabbawallahs at work, who are included en masse in the end credits’ cast list.
Then the turquoise bag lands on a man’s desk in a crowded office. We don’t know it at first, but the man is not Ila’s husband. For reasons never clarified—in this sort of fable, you can only blame fate—it ends up on the desk of accountant Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan). The short sequence in which (in wide shot, in the vastness of the open-plan office) he looks suspiciously at the box, then (in close-up) unfolds its contents, concisely tells us that his daily routine hangs on this moment, and that through this sudden change in his menu, his life will be transformed.
The lunchbox returns to Ila not only empty but practically licked clean—which tells her she has a very appreciative customer. But when she learns that her customer is not the casually neglectful Rajeev, she sends a note in the next lunch, then gets a message back from Saajan. The food itself becomes a sort of correspondence: Ila replies to a terse note about the food being too salty by making the next meal super-spicy, and Saajan writes to acknowledge that she has won this round. To offset the spiciness, he tells her, he ate two bananas; “I think it’ll also be good for the motions,” he adds, a sign of their growing intimacy, as if he’s really writing to his own late wife. Describing the other banana eaters that he sees around him, Saajan brings the city to Ila, who spends much of her time at home; telling him about Auntie’s husband, Ila brings domestic intimacy to Saajan, who as a solitary widower has lost touch with such a thing.
What we have here, then, is an old-fashioned paper-based epistolary film (“in the era of e-mail,” as someone points out) and moreover, an epistolary foodie film—although The Lunchbox doesn’t make too big a deal of stimulating our taste buds. Most of the time, we’re not really aware what Saajan is eating, still less licking our lips over it; we’re simply aware of what it means, and of the rarity of food really meaning something rather than simply being functional. When Saajan compliments his usual catering service on its aloo gobi, the man behind the counter looks amazed. Ila’s food is made con amore, and it’s the love that Saajan tastes, although it’s only after a while that that love is directed at him as confidant and potential partner; the film plays delicately with the idea that preparing food for someone might itself be a form of infidelity, or liberation.
The Lunchbox plays differently on the separate lives of the two lovers-at-a-distance. Ila’s existence is pictured pretty much in a realist register: her home with Rajeev and their young daughter, and a visit to her mother and seriously ill father, his face obscured by a doorway: another touch, like Auntie, of Batra’s elegant use of off-screen space.
Saajan’s life is played more as fable. Depict a character as a taciturn, detached clock-watcher, and you’re immediately invoking a modern tradition of stylized narratives about alienated individuals lost in bureaucracy, going back to Gogol’s The Overcoat and Melville’s Bartleby. Irrfan Khan is best known in the West for Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior. As Saajan, he excels as a laconic, sour, sometimes cautiously amused man, nursing a widower’s loss, and telling off some children almost half-heartedly, by rote, as if he regards it as a regrettable but necessary part of his role to play the neighborhood grouch.
There’s a nice subplot: due for retirement after 35 years (at the same desk, we assume), Saajan is meant to be training his pushy, eager-to-impress younger replacement, Aslam Sheikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). We think we see where this is going—a callous tyro who can’t wait to shove aside his predecessor, right? Not at all. The bond between the two men develops surprisingly and charmingly, and tells us something about the change in work pressure since Saajan started out: we become aware of the struggle that Aslam will face to earn his keep, especially because he’s not terribly competent. In one scene, the two men return from work by train, and there and then Aslam starts chopping vegetables for his wife’s dinner: a revelation of his marital devotion, but also a sign that in hectic, crowded Mumbai, every available space and moment must be seized.
The realism and the fable blend nicely. Ila asks Auntie to play a song from the film that shares her new friend’s name, “Saajan,” and Batra cuts to Saajan on a train, with the same song chanted by a group of young boys—a nice suggestion of telepathy, or everyday magic. The film in question (Lawrence d’Souza) is also about an exchange of texts, poetry in this case, and is based on Cyrano de Bergerac, another story of courtship at a distance.
Batra’s script mixes Hindi and English cleverly—as far as a non-Hindi speaker can tell—sometimes using English for pithy, deadpan punch lines. In one scene, Saajan responds to a question about his reputation as a surly, even brutish loner; his reply is designed to signal that yes, it’s true, in fact, even worse than you could imagine, and he ends with a quiet, priceless “You’d better be careful.” The meaning of words is paramount. The thought of love makes Saajan look younger as the film goes on, at least in his own mind (he’s supposedly much older than Khan, 47), but the poignant moment on which the plot turns involves a man offering him his seat on the train and calling him “Uncle”—almost equivalent to “Old-Timer” or “Gramps.”
Kaur, best known as a theater actress, and Khan perform beautifully opposite each other, all the more so in that they act apart (do the characters meet? I’m not telling). Kaur’s Ila is mature, thoughtful, with a somewhat cerebral-seeming beauty that suggests Emma Bovary with a degree, or something like Julianne Moore’s character in Far from Heaven. She does the composed but provocative on-paper flirtation deliciously, and it’s notable that it’s Ila who makes all the decisive moves in this courtship.
As for Khan, few actors do world-weariness as beautifully—he has the baggy eyes for it, and a muted solemnity in his voice, perfect for keeping Saajan’s dour irony on the most delicate knife-edge. Siddiqui bounces off him nicely too, turning his Aslam, ostensibly an irritant, into someone you’d almost want to hug, if this film were any more overtly feel-good. Thankfully, it’s not: first-time writer-director Batra nearly overplays his hand at a couple of moments, but all in all this is a film of finely judged reserve, and acutely anti-sentimental. There’s an utterly satisfying literary construction to the narrative logic, the tight fable structure proving a wonderful way to contain the chaos of the city’s everyday—and Michael Simmonds's photography navigates elegantly between the composed, interior-bound fiction and the quasi-documentary energy of the street and train footage.