The Lunchbox

July 12, 2014
Irrfan Khan in 'The Lunchbox' (2013)
Irrfan Khan in 'The Lunchbox' (2013)

India is by far the world’s largest producer of feature films, but very few of them make their way into our cinemas. For westerners it seems surreal when a Bollywood drama suddenly erupts into an elaborate song and dance routine that would leave Busby Berkeley gasping. For Indian audiences the opposite applies. Without the songs and dances, many feel that a film is woefully incomplete.

There are exceptions to the rule, notably the realist dramas of Satyajit Ray (1921-92), but how lonely those films seem amid the sea of Bollywood razzle-dazzle.

This makes The Lunchbox, by first-time director, Ritesh Bhatra, a breakthrough in contemporary Indian cinema.

A gentle, melancholy comedy-drama, it was a surprise smash hit in India, and has taken the film festival circuit by storm.

“My parents were worried for me when I showed it to them,” Bhatra told The Guardian. “My mum couldn’t understand why I hadn’t included any songs.”

Despite the absence of songs, The Lunchbox is a thoroughly Indian affair. Set in the bustling metropolis of Mumbai, Bhatra’s first idea was to make a story about the city’s 5,000 lunch delivery men, the dabbawallahs, who have taken hot lunches to workers for more than a hundred years. In 2010, the Harvard Business School conducted a study of Mumbai’s dabbawallahs that showed only one lunchbox in a million is delivered to the wrong address. The Lunchbox is the story of that one-in-a-million occurrence.

This particular lunch is being prepared by a young housewife named Ila (Nimrat Kaur), who is feeling frustrated by her husband’s neglectful attitude. She puts everything into her cooking, taking the advice of an “auntie” from the flat upstairs – heard only as a disembodied voice – that this is the way to attract a man’s attention.

Somehow these meals are being delivered accidentally to one Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a clerk in an insurance office, on the verge of retirement. Although he has a reputation as a dour man, Saajan has a sophisticated palate. He recognises that this food is a huge advance on the meals he has been receiving from a local restaurant. Ila soon realises the lunchbox has gone to the wrong man, but is flattered by his appreciation of her talents. She leaves a note in with the next meal, and a correspondence begins. When she begins to suspect that her husband is having an affair, she becomes increasingly attached to the daily exchange of letters.

Saajan is a widower who feels just as lonely. From the blacony of his apartment he gazes sadly at the happy family next door. Little by little the exchange of notes blossoms into a kind of remote-control romance.

The comedy is enhanced by the presence of Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an enthusiastic young trainee who is Saajan’s designated successor at the insurance company. Although his overtures of friendship are met with stony resistance by the gloomy Saajan, he gradually wins the older man’s affection.

Every move in the film is taken at a slow and deliberate pace that would have won Satyajit Ray’s approval. We watch Saajan riding back and forth on the train each day, in the crush of commuters. We learn of his habits at the office and at home. It’s a brilliant, understated performance by Irrfan Khan, who allows us to understand a lonely, gruff but good-hearted man, through his silences rather than his words.

As the story progresses we become increasingly anxious about this impossible romance between a young married woman, and an elderly man. Will they ever meet? Could they possibly be happy with one another? Bhatra teases out the tension, adding little twists to the tale.

Although food lies at the heart of this story, The Lunchbox is not a film about food. The camera never lingers on Ila’s cooking, and the discussions about the meals are perfunctory. It’s a film about two lonelyhearts in a city of 13 million – two people from contrary backgrounds and different age groups, who are brought together by the accident of a wrongly delivered lunchbox. Bhatra isolates one tiny detail in a teeming canvas, and engages our sympathies.

For Saajan, the lunchbox is a miraculous eruption of hope, in a life that had grown dull and grey. Rather than counting down the days until his retirement, he looks forward to each new lunchbox with the eagerness of an infatuated teenager. Even his impeccable work ethic begins to suffer, as he lets the inexperienced Shaikh make a mess of the books.

In many ways, The Lunchbox feels like an old-fashioned Hollywood comedy, before hyper-vulgarity became the rule. Yet it is also a portrait of an evolving India in which the old social conventions are beginning to disappear. We barely notice that Saajan is a Christian, Ila a Hindu and Shaikh a Muslim, but this is part of the movie’s broadly humanistic approach.

We are also made aware of the rigidly patriarchal nature of a society that condemns Ila to a life of passivity and unhappiness. We want her to stop being merely the property of her careless husband, and to take control of her life. This is the antithesis of generations of Bollywood movies in which women embrace their misfortunes in the name of love. Only afterwards do we realise how this unassuming story takes an iconoclastic stance towards the prejudices of Indian cinema that have become normalised through sheer repetition.

The Lunchbox
Written & directed by Ritesh Bhatra
Starring Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Nakul Vaid, Bharati Achrekar
India/USA/France/Germany, rated PG, 123 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 12 July, 2014.