Language : Hindi | Running Time : 104 Minutes | Director : Ritesh Batra
A man, our protagonist, is offered a seat in a crowded Mumbai train. A young man offers him the seat and tells him “Uncle, aap bait jaiye”. It is one of those scenes that is common in daily life. It is how it translates on-screen,gives you a slice of life as it happens and the actions that such seemingly small moments make you take that The Lunchbox offers us. Depicting reality in a present day scenario is probably the most difficult thing out there because almost everyone is an expert on how things work today. It can be hit or miss, even the slightest plot point scrutinized and dissected. The Lunchbox offers us reality, as much as is possible. It is magical in the way it gives us life.
Saajan Fernandes(Irrfan Khan) is a widower who is about to retire from service as an accountant in the claims department. For 35 years he has worked at the job without making a single mistake which we learn from his boss at one point in the movie. He travels in trains, buses, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, works, goes back home, smokes cigarettes and looks through the window of the opposite house, envying the family as they sit around a table and eat and then himself eats alone, a parcel from a hotel and reads books whose pages are as brownish-yellow as the bark of a shaven tree. He is among the throng of people who live in the cosmopolis that Mumbai is. He is just another man.
In a rare case where the dabbawalas of Mumbai make a mistake, a less than one in six million chance, the lunch prepared by Ila, a brilliant Nimrat Kaur, for her husband Rajeev(Nakul Vaid) doesn’t reach him but instead finds itself on Saajan’s table. The lunchbox returns home empty and like Ila tells Deshapnde aunty(voiced by Bharati Achrekar) “lagta hai ki chaat ke khaya hai” when she asks her how the new recipe turned out. When her husband returns home, she hopes that he notices how pretty she looks and gives her the attention she deserves but she learns that neither did he eat what she’d sent but seemingly liked something she didn’t cook more than what she usually sent out to him. This leads her to send Saajan lunch again but this time with a letter inside the box. This act starts a correspondence between them.
We see Nimrat as a housewife with an uncaring husband, unloved and with only her cooking, her daughter and Deshpande aunty for company. Like almost every late 20s to early 30s home-maker whose husband appears busy, she pines for attention and appreciation but here it isn’t from everyone but only her husband. On the day we see her first sending a dabba to her husband hoping to find him back home showering her with love, we see one of Indian film’s classic scenes of a woman using her eyes to try to gather attention. Nimrat Kaur brings a smile on our faces with her antics. There’s a tipping point in place which makes her want to meet Saajan but until then she only finds solace in his friendship, being able to talk to someone other than Deshpande aunty, a person she won’t be able to tell everything. In the letters that she writes, she tells him how her life is playing out and in return she finds strength and comfort. Sometimes, she ends up telling him to take care of himself. The relationship between them gradually develops. Love doesn’t happen right-away. No longer do we have the lunch box was delivered because fate has it that they are lovers moment here. They talk with no attachment at first. The letters being just a thank you and comments about the food, like there being too much of salt or too much of spice. There’s very little salt and spice in Ila’s life, this being her complaint and there being too much of slat and spice in the food being Saajan’s complaint. A study in contrasts, something Ritesh Batra deals with throughout the film.
The letters then start becoming longer, there are more words exchanged and they also become more and more important to each other. Ila narrates her life, her problems and in turn Saajan recounts experiences from his life. One of the films most memorable and lasting scenes is Saajan narrating about him buying a painting. He tells that he purchased the painting because he thought he saw himself in the painting by an artist on the street. He tells how it might be him but it could be anybody in the city who was walking the streets. It talks of a man who in his life hasn’t felt worthy of great things, a man who has lived an ordinary life going through the motions of a day without having caused much of an impact to be any different from another man on the train. It is the confession of a feeling that most of us go through. The little vanity at having found a part of ourself and then telling it someone, a realisation that ends up being transcendental. When Shaikh(Nawazuddin Siddique) remarks that this is the generation of emails and that no one sends letters, we nod our heads in assent but at the same time we are transported to a world that’s beyond ordinary. There’s still some romance in letters and the old worldly Saajan finds comfort in them. A man known for his discipline and gruffness, Saajan becomes excited like a child and is not able to control himself once the lunchbox arrives. He has to see what’s written. The food, no matter how tasty, are no longer his biggest concern. On the second day he receives his lunch, he tells the man sitting next to him who looks at him patronizingly, “Lo, ab ho gaya” when the clock strikes time for lunch. Even though initially, it is the prospect of eating some deliciously cooked meal that drives him to say this, we see him repeating the action of smelling the container as soon as it arrives. He wants to be sure that the smell coming from inside is the meal cooked by Ila. It isn’t hunger that’s driving him crazy but the excitement of learning more about Ila, of learning more about himself in return. With Ila, reading the letters are an equally important part. They have become so routine that she sits with the letter along with her afternoon tea, only that the tea is left untouched but the letter is devoured.
The Lunchbox is not merely an identification or exchange of pleasantries through letters at the behest of showing us some very well stylised food, more stylised than possible when a home-maker cooks in a hurry and sends it to her husband. Such stylising wouldn’t be possible even if 5 star chefs did the honors of cooking and putting the food in the lunchbox. Now, this was just an observation and not a complaint. The Lunchbox becomes the film it is because it allows us to understand the characters and gives us instances of them gradually falling for each other. In Ila’s case, we don’t really have any outside influences to show her gradual change in character but when it comes to Saajan we have Shaikh(Nawazuddin Siddique), the accountant set to replace him on retirement, and the kids in the neighbourhood who play cricket as well. Initially, Saajan comes across as a gruff old man and it is obvious how people see him when we have him visit the restaurant that provides him with his dabba but one that is instead received by Ila’s husband. In an initial exchange with them, we find one of the people from the restaurant surprised at Saajan coming and praising their cooking. He is known for his gruffness. The sudden complimentary attitude surprises them. To reiterate Saajan’s nature, we have Shaikh, someone Saajan is supposed to train for the job, hovering around him and telling him that the people in the office have been telling him what he is like – a gruff man from whom no help could be expected. The moments we have with Shaikh and Saajan stand out because we have two brilliant actors sharing screen space. They make way for each other and hold their own to the point where you are lost in the chalk and cheese characters of Saajan and Shaikh. Shaikh is an orphan who has a penchant for talking to people. Saajan is his polar opposite when it comes to talking to people. Shaikh is the kind of man who eats a banana or two for lunch and cuts vegetables while travelling on a train so that he can cook dinner for himself and his girl as soon as he reaches home and then spend time walking with his girlfriend. Saajan is initially dismissive of Shaikh but his doggedness wins him over and with time, Shaikh becomes Saajan’s lunch companion.
Saajan is one of the most lovingly etched characters on-screen. The contrast in his personality throughout the movie as events unfold in front of him are a wonderful study. Initially, he scolds the children for playing cricket outside his house. Towards the end of the movie as he comes more and more in terms of what he has lost and gained, he tells them to play but make sure that they don’t break the windows. The gradual transformation happens over episodes of Ye Jo Hai Zindagi as he thinks about missed opportunities, attempts at quitting smoking because Ila told him that she regrets her father having lung cancer, learning of Shaikh’s struggles and his optimism and also realising that life is more than just growing old and dying. The Lunchbox is a study of contrasts in realisation of what it conveys.It takes episodes of everyday life to show us what it wants to convey. The “Uncle, aap bait jaiye” scene is contrasted by an old man whose hands won’t stop shaking, talking about travelling from Nashik to meet his son. In a scene where Ila’s father is dead, Ila’s mother (Lillete Dubey) talks about how love withered between the two after a point and all her life was a cycle of waking up, making food for her husband and giving him his pills. When Ila was hoping for eternal love with her husband and not getting it and then hoping for love from Saajan, she realises that life could be nothing at all but an endless struggle. It offers us laughter in the way it takes on the dowry system. When Shaikh tells Saajan not to tell his prospective father -in- law that he is not being promoted yet because this would ruin his chances of getting a scooter, we find Shaikh an incorrigible but simple man, like Saajan does.The Lunchbox doesn’t offer life in sugar coated candies. It isn’t harsh like a morning hangover either. It is like the sweet sleep that comes out of being tired. Life’s like that tiredness after a long day, it is a toil and in the end there’s contentment.
In a film like The Lunchbox, it shouldn’t matter to us if the couple meet or not. It isn’t as important as the act of them knowing that they love each other. So when we find Ila sitting alone at a cafe, it speaks to us. That loneliness, that moment of self-doubt, it claws at us. Ila doesn’t believe that she could ever commit suicide and that she should just leave her husband and go to Bhutan. Bhutan because she learnt from her daughter that all kinds of people live there and that the country might not have a Gross Domestic Product but it does have a Gross National Happiness. In many ways, it is indicative of what the society has done to middle class Indians with the focus solely on the amount of work done in the office, the money it brings and with the money, status in the society. Life is more than that. Without happiness the domestic product doesn’t make sense to Ila.
Irrfan Khan has evolved into one of the best actors to have graced the screen. Until last year, I found him adequate on-screen, nothing exceptional when compared to his performances on stage but this year, he has grown in stature with the roles he has done and The Lunchbox sees him becoming a middle-aged man puffing, hustling and bustling in Mumbai, pining for a chance at love when it comes knocking at his door. A moment when he listens to the radio transmitting from Bhutan encapsulates the kind of pining he has for love. Nimrat Kaur is lovely and brilliant as the unloved housewife. During her interactions with her mother, we see the spine she has and at others we see her vulnerability. In terms of character she doesn’t really have a great deal when compared to Saajan but with what she has, she has given a memorable performance. Nawzuddin Siddique makes you smile with him, laugh with him , laugh at him and gives the film its warmth. He gives Saajan the lackey thanks to whom he gets to become the bigger character in the film. Shaikh’s simplicity gives Saajan a towering personality even though he is actually a man with a lot of doubts.
Ritesh Batra captures Mumbai unlike most films. While most films would be satisfied with a customary shot of the Gateway of India and possibly Dharavi, here we actually get to see Mumbai as the city it is. Matunga, Bandra(not the posh area), Dongri become prominent areas here. The movie connects with the actual middle class in Mumbai. Michael Simmonds on camera and Max Richter‘s music give the movie a huge boost as well.
Like Saajan looks back at the tapes his wife made of old TV shows, one day we will be watching The Lunchbox again and at that time it will remain as fresh as it today is. The Lunchbox is a movie that has in it to stand the test of time, it can endure because it has almost everything perfect in it. The ending to the movie could have been a bit more abrupt but as you think more you realise how some things still have to be present to make movies work. The climax is one such scene. The Lunchbox is a movie that I have a lot of love for. The movie is a slice of life that shall hold a special place. In time, as Saajan travels along the area he once lived and finds that most of the places he knew are now no longer there, when we look back we’ll have films that would hardly be in our memory but The Lunchbox will remain in our mind like the school Saajan remembers because they matter to us.