Year of release: 2013
Director: Ritesh Batra
Casts: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
My rate: 5/5
I though Chef (2014) had made me drooling enough, until I got my hand on The Lunchbox. It was one of the best Indian films I've ever watched aside from Three Idiots and PK, especially since the movie is surprisingly bare from songs and dances. The movie was a source of controversy because of the Film Federation of India's decision to pick The Good Road instead of The Lunchbox to become India's selection for the 86th Academy Awards Best Foreign Film Category. There were many reasons behind the uproar, and while I have no capacity to judge, I agree that The Lunchbox is worthy of accolade because it is a love story everyone can connect with. The story is so simple, relatable and deep that I found myself feeling dumbfounded when the movie ended, because I realized that, in this story, the man and woman never actually meet.
The movie starts with glimpses of activities of dabbawalas; white-clad delivery men that are parts of India's delivery system that takes warm lunchboxes from homes to people at various workplaces at designated time, using railway train and bicycles. We then see Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a wife and mother who is struggling to regain her husband's dwindling affection. With the help of her kindly neighbor (whom we never see on-screen since they talk by shouting to each other from their flat windows), she attempts to cook delicious lunch with various new recipes and spices. A dabbawala is taking the lunchbox and delivering it to (supposedly) her husband's office.
Later, we see Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a middle-aged office worker and widower who is on the brink of retirement. He is a plain accountant, working for years in a same company, doing repetitive jobs with meager salary, and having no other aspirations in life. When a green lunchbox bag is delivered to his desk, he even doesn't lift his head (except when meeting a new employee that is about to take over his job). However, his daily monotony is interrupted when he opens the lunchbox and realizes that the food is nothing like he has ever tasted before. Of course, he's hooked right after the first bite (but he still thinks that the food is from restaurant where he usually orders lunch).
When Ila realizes that her lunchbox is delivered to the wrong person, she puts a note in the lunchbox for Saajan, thanking him for finishing the food and telling him that the lunch is intended for her husband. Saajan replies with another note, and somehow, this develops into long-distance friendship, with lunchbox and handwritten notes as communication method. Saajan finds himself becoming more aware of small, intimate details in his daily life, in order to find something to write for Ila. Meanwhile, Ila is finally aware of her husband's infidelity, and this makes her becoming more opened toward Saajan. The notes become a part of her daily routine, and she somehow finds new excitement in life, apart from being a dutiful mother and wife to cold husband. Saajan also forms a close friendship with Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the young new employee that's supposed to replace his position.
Finally, Ila and Saajan decide to meet in a cafe, but Saajan backs off after seeing how young and beautiful Ila is, and thinks that old man like him does not deserve her. Disappointed and heartbroken, Ila finally makes a drastic decision: she's going to move to Bhutan with her daughter. It is up to Saajan to reconnect with Ila, especially after he realizes how much in love he is with her.
One thing that I like about The Lunchbox is how restrained the movie is. Instead of overly sweet and cloying, this movie lets the plot grows naturally, focusing on how a friendship can develop from unexpected circumstance such as delivery mistake. For an Indian romantic movie, The Lunchbox is not crammed with dialogues. All the conversations are the types that you will definitely hear "from the mouths of regular people instead of actors."
From the character development area, I also like how the apathetic, uninterested Saajan becomes more open to details in the city where he has lived for almost 50 years, such as the works of street painter or new and old buildings that he sees when doing an impromptu cab trip. At first, this is only so he can find something to write. However, we can see the moment when he starts to genuinely care about Ila, when he hears a news about the suicide of a young woman. Ila also starts to listen to old Indian songs Saajan once mentions in the note, and introduces new doll game to her daughter. Love transforms them; not in spectacular ways, but with small changes in routine that makes their daily life feels brighter. Again, this is definitely something that everyone whose life is not exactly Hollywood movie can relate to.
The realistic approach of the story came from the director's experiences. Ritesh Batra, who has made several short movies before, originally intended to make a documentary about dabbawala delivery system in Mumbai. However, when doing researches, he became aware of the dabbawalas' personal stories; things that they saw and heard when they came to houses or apartments to take the lunchboxes. Instead of documentary, he decided to write a script for what would be his first feature film. Several of delivery men he befriended also appeared in the movie as minor characters. One of them even cheekily made reference to a Harvard study about their system; the dabbawala mentions it when Ila protests about the delivery mistake (apparently you must pay to read the full study report, so here is a related article by Stefan Thomke from Harvard Business School, the same person who did the study in 2010).
And like I said before, I was a bit surprised when realized that this beautiful love story enfolded without the main characters ever meet, except if you count the moment when Saajan sees Ila in the cafe and decides not to approach her. As a movie fan, I cannot count the times when I skipped or fast-forwarded many scenes in a movie because I found it to be boring, despite the marketing hype. However, I found myself sitting silently without my fingers even moving close to the mouse, getting absorbed in the movie from the beginning until the end. And I think this movie has clear appeal for audiences in Western countries; it is based on an iconic business model in one of the busiest cities in India, with scenes that bring us deep to the heart of Mumbai, complete with all the juxtapositions, but with story and character developments that everyone can find themselves relate to. Many Indian movies that I've watched often consist of either star-crossed lovers or sufferings of marginalized people (except maybe for Three Idiots and PK, and even in them, I still skip the song-and-dance sequences whenever they come). While they are fine and dandy, it is so refreshing to find Indian movie that was made with restraint and realistic approach such as The Lunchbox.
Finally, I like how Batra used city soundscapes effectively as soundtrack. The most prominent songs are the dabbawalas' singing and clapping in the train, and songs from old TV shows that Ila and Saajan listen to. The movie is not even opened with song; simply these city soundscapes. India's big cities are crowded and noisy, but they are the elements that you cannot separate from the cities' very souls. The sounds are inseparable parts of the atmosphere, and if I close my eyes while the movie is playing, I can easily imagine the delivery men riding their bikes in the middle of busy street under the morning rain, stacking lunchbox bags on big iron racks, carrying them with train, before taking the bags to a busy but silent office room, with the only sounds being rustles of paper and faint phone rings. Also, I do not know anything about Indian cuisine, but the foods that Ila makes somehow manage to make me seriously salivating.
The Lunchbox is a love story that feels like a satisfying lunch with the right portion; it makes you satisfied without feeling bloated and spent, and it leaves delicious, lingering aftertaste that tempts you to come back.