I Want Seconds of 'The Lunchbox'!

The Lunchbox
(India/France/USA/ Germany, 104 min.)
Written and directed by Ritesh Batra
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Irrfan Khan as Saajan. Photo by Michael Simmonds, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
I want seconds of The Lunchbox! This feature debut by writer/director Ritesh Batra is a savoury film. The indelible Lunchbox offers an exotic dish for audiences, too, for the deceptively simple love story is delivered by the intricate system of Mumbai’s Dabbawallahs, which are a group of deliverymen who shuttle lunchboxes (dabbas) around the city in a complex network that brings piping-hot home-cooked meals into offices around the city. It’s a complicated system as The Lunchbox shows through the dizzying array of trains, cars, bicycles, and rickshaws that traverse the densely populated city. However, a Harvard study suggests that the Dabbawallahs have such an accurate system that the likelihood of a wife’s culinary efforts filling the tummy of the wrong husband is as unlikely as the odds of one in a million. There is still that one lunchbox out of every million that may go to the wrong man, though, and Mumbai is a city of over 12 million people, so there are stories to be told behind those few wayward deliveries that defy the system.

The happenstance of being that lottery ticket lunchbox is the perfect ingredient for a good cinematic relationship. Ila (a radiant Nimrat Kaur who brings a soulful longing to the film) gets the surprise of her life when she tries to spice up her relationship with her husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid) by cooking her auntie’s special recipe. (Her auntie is a hilarious character who is always offscreen, yet omnipresent in the constant hallooing that goes on between their apartments.) The surprise is that Rajeev’s lunchbox, for the first time ever, arrives home empty. It looks as if it was licked clean and Ila’s heart leaps for joy!
Nimrat Kaur as Ila. Photo by Michael Simmonds, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
If the route to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then Ila’s dish is a triumph. The secret ingredient, however, is the stroke of luck that delivers the dabba to the wrong man. The lunch meant for Rajeev, that one lunch in a million that goes to the wrong luncher, lands on the desk of Mr. Saajan Fernandes (played with commendable humility and vulnerability by Life of Pi’s Irrfan Khan), a widower and claims investigator working the final days of his tedious job in a stuffy Mumbai office. Ila’s lunch makes every day of his final month worth the daily rat race, though, for her gratitude at his appreciation for her cooking inspires her to pour her soul into each meal that fills the dabba. The meals warm the heart as much as they satisfy the belly.

The Lunchbox offers the most satisfying creation of food on film since that delectable prawn scene with Tilda Swinton made moviegoers’ tongues quiver in I am Love. The dishes of The Lunchbox are simpler and less sensuous than the gourmet grub of Love, but there’s a stirring poetry to the pleasure of its home-style cooking. What makes The Lunchbox such a lovely film is not so much the dishes themselves, but the pleasure one gets in sharing a meal. Eating is, after all, a communal event just as much as it is an act of refueling one’s body. Batra unites Ila and Saajan beautifully in their crosscut scenes as one character prepares the meal and the other enjoys it. One feels the same comforting warmth watching the movie that one gets while sipping a cup of soup.

Moreover, The Lunchbox playfully adds a mealtime conversation to their lunch dates, for Ila slips a kind ‘thank you’ note into the second dish she sends Saajan’s way. He replies with a modest, “The food was salty today,” but the developing courtship of the two makes The Lunchbox is sweet—an utterly believable—love story. Batra also gives Ila and Saajan an implied union through the subtle framing of their epistolary lunch dates. Each party sits at the opposite side of the table in their respective reading, so The Lunchbox works as a dialogue of shot/reverse shots that conjoin the two through the act of sharing a meal.

The indirect presence of one party in the other’s story also grants the lunches a whiff of infidelity. Sending a letter a meal to a different man isn’t adultery per se, but the editing by John Lyons, the direction by Batra, and the excellent performances by Kaur and Khan give the conversations a hesitancy and a sense of reservation, thus implying the grey area into which the lunches stray as Ila falls in love again by feeding Saajan since her husband is never home to share her cooking nor her company. They’re exploring what it feels like to fall in love again and as their buds slowly taste forgotten flavours.

The motif of the community and the conviviality of sharing a meal develops as The Lunchbox progresses, for Saajan is gradually joined at the lunch-table by his new replacement, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Shaikh is an annoying keener when his tenure his Saajan begins, but Batra introduces food to show the gaps in Shaikh’s own life and the effort he makes to better his situation. Some people, Saajan notes in a letter to Ila, cannot afford more to eat more than a banana a meal since they’re cheap and they fill you up. The first day at lunch, to no surprise, Shaikh pulls out a banana while Saajan devours another scrumptious meal from Ila’s kitchen. The reserved Saajan opens up to Shaikh, though, and passes some naan across the table and invites Shaikh to help himself. A barrier is broken by breaking bread, and the same spark that Ila finds in the kitchen ignites a friendship between the two colleagues as Shaikh becomes more endearing with each meal.

Shaikh also introduces a valuable piece of proverbial wisdom that becomes the underlying mantra of the film. One day, when Shaikh invites Saajan back for dinner, he explains on the long ride home that his poverty often leaves him hopping trains without a ticket and hoping that he won’t be caught as he moves from place to place. “Sometimes the wrong train brings you to the right station,” he says. The line arises when Saajan feels a different kind of hunger each time the lunchbox appears on his desk. Saajan, however, also learns of the sizable age gap between himself and Ila as their letters become more intimate and revealing.

The trains, on the other hand, provide another visual element of the film to complement Batra's play with food. The complicated network of transit in the city—noted in the sprawling trains and the hustle-bustle of Dabbawallahs—shows the endless myriad of possibilities that await a hungry/lovelorn traveller. Batra packs every frame of The Lunchbox with metaphors, and the vibrancy of the city, the sensational pleasures of the food, and the hunger that invades every space of the frame makes The Lunchbox a film for any palette.

Batra makes a commendable feature debut with The Lunchbox by furthering the intimacy of comfort foods he developed in his lovely short Café Regular, Cairo. The Lunchbox, like Café Regular, is stirring in its simplicity; however, Batra brings the film to an unexpected destination as The Lunchbox boards the trains of Mumbai and tests Shaikh’s theory about trains and stations. The Lunchbox leaves it open to viewers where Ila and Saajan might be going. The Lunchbox, a near-perfect film, will surely leave audiences hoping that Ila and Saajan get a second course.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Lunchbox is currently screening in theatres from Mongrel Media.
It screens in Toronto at the Cineplex Varsity and Varsity VIP cinemas and it screens in Ottawa at The Mayfair from April 25 and returns to The ByTowne on May 22 and June 22-24.

What did you think of The Lunchbox?