On the basis of its plot alone, you might walk into The Lunchbox expecting a kind of Bollywood You’ve Got Mail. Prepare instead for a refined meditation on loneliness that is at once genuine and effortlessly heartwarming.
Set in modern day Mumbai, the debut film of writer-director Ritesh Batra begins when Ila (Nimrat Kaur, known prominently in India as a theatre actress and internationally for her Cadbury commercial), hoping to reignite the interest of her increasingly distant husband, prepares with love and care for him a meal that is to arrive at his job via the city’s lunch delivery men, the dabbawallahs. This 125 year old system, which delivers daily to hundreds of thousands of Mumbai’s workers, is best known for its consistent efficiency, with Harvard Business School concluding that only one in every million deliveries goes wrong. For reasons that are not made apparent to the viewer, Ila’s is that one in a million. Her feast reaches Saajan (Irrfan Khan of Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi), a widower in the last weeks before retirement from his job at an insurance company and about to be replaced by a young newcomer (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). The meal is a jolt to Saajan’s senses, breaking the monotony of the second-rate restaurant from which he usually orders and of his daily routine generally. Ila quickly realizes that her husband is not receiving her food and out of intrinsic curiosity includes a note within the stack of naan bread in a subsequent delivery. And because Saajan so obviously appreciates her cooking she continues to send it as their letters increase in length.
But the film focuses less on their relationship and more on how the exchange affects their ability to maneuver their individual worlds. Much of the dialogue consists of the voiceover narration of their letters, underlining how the exchange is more for themselves than for each other. As Saajan admits to Ila,“We forget things if we have no one to tell them to.” Indeed, the film beautifully illustrates how loneliness arises when one’s world becomes increasingly confined which, ironically, is more than likely in a city of 11 million people. Not only does Ila suffer a distant husband, but her sole confidant besides the anonymous Saajan – in the letters he does not reveal his name – is an upstairs neighbor who is never physically present. Their conversations, which invariably begin when Ila cries “Auntie” with an infectious cadence, consist of them calling out to each other from their individual units. Saajan’s mourning of the death of his wife and the impersonal nature of his job have made him box himself in and reinforce his own loneliness. Consistently, for instance, when the children in his neighborhood play around his apartment, he shrewdly sends them away. Then in the evening from his balcony he watches them through their windows at dinner with their families, longing for a time when he could claim such connection for himself.
Thus the viewer’s interest draws not so much from the question of whether Saajan and Ila will come together as from whether they will be able to break from the confines causing their loneliness. This is especially compelling with regards to Ila since her confines are, to a greater extent than Saajan, beyond her control. Even when she tries to tell a dabawallah of the mistaken deliveries, he dismisses her, saying that “men from Harvard came” and confirmed the system’s efficiency. So she doesn’t even get a say in who receives her cooking. And with her brother, who committed suicide sometime in the past, as her only example of someone who “broke free” one wonders whether the exchange of letters will bring her a greater sense of control or reaffirm her sense of powerlessness. While Saajan feels equally trapped, the nature of his confines stems more from the way he has reacted to his own situation. As he grows closer throughout the film with his newcomer-to-be than he thought possible and his qualities of sensitivity and dignity become more apparent, one hopes that his neuroses will not continue to overwhelm him.
Finally, if the film’s effective blend of melancholy, introspection and organic charm does not sound worth the price of admission, its potential redirecting of Indian cinema should. Its neorealism is not characteristic of India’s commercial successes in recent years. “My parents were worried for me when I showed it to them,” says Batra. “My mum couldn’t understand why I hadn’t included any songs.” But by the film’s fifth week it was still playing on over 300 screens before it went on to win the viewers choice award (the Rail d’Or) at Cannes and cause a public stir when the Film Federation of India myopically neglected to submit it for the best Foreign Film Oscar. Indeed, the fact that much of the plot is constructed around characteristics of life in Mumbai has only added to its appeal. But although Batra has shown that a film can have a quiet, introspective tone, can have the elements and setup of a romance without necessarily being one, and still gain commercial success, it is still uncertain whether a slew of films that attempt to mirror this achievement is forthcoming. With certainty, however, it is an extraordinary achievement for a first-time director, and if he remains the only one making films like this, it will be a welcome development nonetheless.