Lunchbox delivery in Mumbai is world-famous. Dabbawalas (couriers) pick up the often four-tiered contraptions containing steaming home-cooked meals and deliver them to workplaces all over the city, then return them to the appropriate residence before the end of the day.
Studied internationally at universities as business successes and filmed in documentaries as a cultural phenomenon, the lunchbox system is noted for its nearly perfect performance record; rarely does a lunchbox go to the wrong person. Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox is the story of that one-in-six-million lunchbox.
Saajan Fernandes feels the burden of life’s monotony. His impending retirement should bring some relief, but instead Saajan becomes more despondent that he must train the eager and annoyingly pleasant Shaikh.
Ila is a young mother who is lonely in her marriage. Not only is she ignored by her husband, but she senses infidelity. When one day a dabbawala returns her husband’s lunchbox to her and it is empty, suggesting the meal had been heartily devoured, Ila thinks that if the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then perhaps there is hope. But it’s all a big mistake. The lunchbox went to Saajan.
The story that follows should be a romantic comedy, but Batra, in his first full-length film, is clearly too practical, too intuitive for that.
This is a joyful story with much to lament. Both the smiles and the tears among audience members were quiet, almost personal, and never leaning to an extreme. The film has very little dialogue outside of the voiceovers from the letters Saajan and Ila exchange through the lunchbox and, with these actors, there is little need for words.
Irrfan Kahn (as Saajan) is not really old enough to play the role but he’s so brilliant he gets away with it, and Nimrat Kaur is stunning as Ila. Both are so subtly mesmerising in their roles that we feel we know them not through how they project their voices or bring emotion to the cracks of their faces, but in the way their breathing seems to change during their many hesitations and skipped beats of the heart.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as Shaikah, adds much animation to the quiet simmering of the romantic tale. But do NOT let the poster fool you. This is not as light-hearted as a Sandra Bullock rom-com; it’s more real than those cash-producing, formula-driven films will ever be. And more touching.
Go to this film, go to this film, go to this film – then go to lunch or dinner at an Indian restaurant to discuss it afterwards. Trust me, your instincts will be leading you to the Taj Tandoori or what-have-you in the first 10 minutes of the film.
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