Title The Lunchbox
Starring Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur and Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Director Ritesh Batra
Writer(s) Ritesh Batra (screenplay), Vasan Bala (Hindi dialogue consultant)
Genre Drama Romance
Release Date September 20, 2013
Filming Location Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Parental Guidance Rated PG for thematic material and smoking
IMDB Rating 7.8
Synopsis: Ila (Nimrat Kaur) leads a mundane life of an average Indian housewife, where her days are occupied by seeing her husband and daughter off to work and school, respectively, then gossiping with the upstairs elderly woman whom she calls “auntie” by shouting out the kitchen window as she prepares meals for her family and carries on doing daily housekeeping. Lately, her husband has been absentminded about their relationship and, on the advice of her neighboring auntie, she begins preparing sumptuous lunches to win him back that she sends off with the famously efficient Mumbai Dabbawalas (lunchbox service) to his workplace. By a fluke, this lunchbox ends up at the desk of an elderly widower, Sajan (Irrfan Khan) who is an accountant on the cusp of retirement from a place he has worked for 35 years. Sajan enjoys the delicious meal and when the lunchbox returns home to Ila, it is completely empty, i.e. every bowl in the tiffin carrier is wiped clean. Excited by this unexpected turn of events, Ila waits for her husband to return home and compliment her. However, not only is he as aloof as ever, when Ila asks him if he liked the meal, he says “the aloo gobi (potato-cauliflower stir fry) was okay”, and Ila realizes he received the wrong lunchbox. Her upstairs auntie advises her to put in a note inside the lunchbox the next day to find out where her meal goes, which Ila reluctantly does, telling this stranger the box was for her husband. Sajan finds the letter, eats the delicious meal but, being the dry codger that he is, his reply constitutes of only two lines: “Dear, Ila, the food was very salty today.” Ila’s neighbor advises her to put extra chili in the food the next day and she again complies reluctantly. Sajan gets the message and becomes more tactful in his replies. Over time, Ila finds that she looks forward to his replies just as Sajan enjoys hearing about her days, her marital anxieties, and sometimes even offering advice gleaning from his own satisfying domestic experiences. Sajan also shares about his last days in office and the antics of the new replacement, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), whom he is training to take his post.
Experience (some spoilers): If I were to describe this movie with one simple line, I would say, “It’s a gratifyingly romantic story with no fuss and no muss”.
The screenplay, the direction, the editing was all done with the aim to satisfy the story and nothing more. There are no superficial elements, no extra scenes, and no irrelevant dialogues to detract or titillate the audience. We are immediately taken to show Ila preparing that significant first lunch for her husband and then Sajan’s reaction to the meal. If one does not see the trailer or read the synopsis, one would think Sajan is her husband until another man walks in through her front door that first evening, and hence, commiserate with her anticipation. And in this way, the audience is made to share in each season of emotions as they take turn to appear: anticipation, irritation, empathy, sympathy, surprise, humor, disappointment, and hope. In fact, so well is the movie directed and edited, that there is an overall dry appeal to the storytelling, effectively capturing Sajan’s eccentric nature and Ila’s frustrating home conditions. Even when the movie cuts to comic relief with Sajan’s interludes with Shaikh, the senior’s less-than-welcoming attitude towards the junior’s enthusiasm to be trained, the movie picks up clean humor as we witness Shaikh finally penetrating and melting Sajan’s heart, which was already softening with his daily letter exchanges with Ila. And the fact that there are these montages to depict the lives and efficiency of the Dabbawalas only added to the drama and is such a fit tribute to the theme.
I especially enjoyed the fact that Ila and Sajan do not meet throughout the movie and still manage to fall in love. There is nothing superficial or artificial about their relationship. It’s a search of companionship that has transformed into something more sustainable. It is endearing to see this older gentleman, so resigned to living a life of retirement convalescing in a nursing community, take painstaking care in his appearance the morning he is to meet Ila only to stand her up; or the way she sends him an empty lunchbox the next day to give him a “silent treatment” and he accepts it readily, sending her an apology, explaining that he went to see her but lost his courage when he saw how beautiful she was and how old he is. It is a moment rich with impact when he explains that he realized that morning that he could “smell his grandfather” on himself. I was actually able to imagine what that could smell like – starched cotton, soap, talcum and Old Spice aftershave. I could feel his humiliation and sympathize with him thoroughly.
There is no point in discussing the acting of any individual actor in this movie. Every actor, starting from the three starring roles to the lunchbox courier man to even the faceless auntie upstairs, performed their roles with economy. They were each a credit to the art of their profession yet made their efforts seem artless. Without a doubt, the movie has been made on a small budget (so small that there is a copy error – ‘Reseach’ – in the end-credit roll) cinema but what budget they had was very effectively allocated.
Recommendation: Even though the movie is weaved with the use of Hindi, I would ask movie lovers and fiction writers to watch it alike. Not watching this movie would be letting a masterpiece slip by.