THE LUNCHBOX. Director and screenplay: Ritesh Batra. Players: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Nakul Vaid, Lillete Dubey. Hindi with English sub-titles. Theatrical release (Sony Pictures Classics).
The Indian dabba system of lunch delivery has such a low rate of error that Harvard Business professor Stefan Thomke made it the subject of a Harvard Business Review case study. Yet it is precisely such a human error that forms the premise of The LunchBox, a whimsical love story set in the chaotic metropolis of Mumbai.
The lietmotif of the film is that sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right place. The aromatic and delicious lunches prepared by the quietly desperate housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) mistakenly find their way to the desk of the crusty widower Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan), an office worker whose soul has been numbed under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights.
Fernandez is not brimming with human kindness. He brushes off the children on his street. He lives alone, eats alone, and works alone. Tales of his mean-spiritedness are bandied around. His reputation in the office is of a curmudgeon from whom not much is to be expected. Someone who might kick a cat and keep walking.
He lacks a good woman’s love, we are to understand. The city, anonymous and alienating, is equally to blame. The camerawork captures the gritty realism of a city where “there are too many people and they all want what the other has.” The antidote, regular application of Ila’s cooking, carefully prepared and tenderly unwrapped, do wonders for his temperament. We see a softening of his demeanor, a lightness to his step as the aromatic vegetables and soft parathas work their magic.
These meals, much like Cupid’s arrow, have missed their intended recipient, Ila’s distracted and indifferent spouse, but forge an alternate heart connection. The notes in the dabbas get longer and more personal.
Into her days filled with domestic drudgery and the growing realization that her husband’s attention has moved elsewhere, Fernandez’s notes provide her with some small measure of solace.
Ila is surrounded by women trapped in unfulfilling domestic roles. There is the shrunken world of Deshpande Aunty upstairs, who dispenses off-camera marital and culinary advice, reminiscent of the unseen neighbor in Home Improvement. There is Ila’s mother, a deglamorized Lillette Dubey, who confesses to being repulsed by her ailing husband, and the claustrophobic routines of his “breakfast, medicine, bath.”
The parallel worlds of home and office are brought together adroitly by sound bridges, often of Bollywood film music, as well as graphic matches that hint at the director Ritesh Batra’s formal film training at New York University. The realist sensibility is sometimes reminiscent of the films of Satyajit Ray.
“For some time you let me into your dreams and I want to thank you for that.” There is a romantic escapism that underlies this dream that Fernandez has been allowed into. Running away from home and moving to Bhutan might legitimately constitute an under-appreciated housewife’s private escapist dream. But will Ila move there with her daughter and Fernandez, whom, incidentally, she has never seen?
Even if all of these questions are answered, we are still left with the question of whether her husband, so enamored of his digital devices, will actually notice that she has left.
EQ rating: A
Geetika Pathania Jain is a Bay Area resident. She teaches in the film and television department of a local community college.