Rating: – 9/10.
“We forget things if we have no one to tell them to.”
That line encapsulates the pandemic of loneliness that seems to have engulfed modern society. The irony of our hyper-connected world is that it gets pretty lonely when everyone’s out living their lives. When you’re sitting mute across the table from the stranger you’re married to or alone at your table eating takeout while the laughter of the neighboring family having dinner threatens to suffocate you under the weight of your own solitude, you ache for someone to talk to, someone to recount your darkest dreams and happiest memories to.
Saajan Fernandes and Ila are two such lonely souls trying to keep their heads above the dispiriting waters of their ennui. Saajan is almost 60, about to retire, a widower with 35 years of impeccable work in the claims department of an insurance company. Ila is a twenty-something home-maker with a young daughter, Ishwi and a cheating husband (Nakul Vaid) who fails to give her the attention she desperately needs. By a one-in-six-million chance, the lunchbox which Ila sends to her husband through Mumbai’s legendary dabba system gets exchanged with Saajan’s lunchbox from a restaurant near him. Ila, whose husband doesn’t usually like the food she sends, is surprised when the lunchbox is returned licked clean the very day that she tries out a new recipe. But when her husband comes home, she soon realizes what must have happened. The next day, Saajan receives a note tucked between the rotis. And thus begins in tentative stops and starts the great romance of their lives. And yet the movie never assumes that these two must end up together. This is a movie set in the real universe and does not conform to the brutal black-white romantic illogic of the movies.
Ila has a confidante, Deshpande Aunty (voiced by Bharti Achrekar), who lives upstairs and tends to her catatonic husband and who is never seen but only heard throughout the duration of the film. The two bond over vegetables, recipes and Aunty-ji’s enormous collection of oldies cassettes. And Saajan has a … friend, I suppose you could call it? A new employee at his office, Sheikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an spirited effervescent orphan who’s just transferred from the UAE. These two characters provide a sounding-board, a conversational outlet for the emotional changes brought on in Ila and Saajan’s life by their epistolary intercourse. We see how Ila, the quintessential overwhelmed, unfulfilled home-maker starts to make efforts to take control of her life. And Saajan starts to feel that maybe his life is not over, as he had imagined it to be. Maybe, just maybe, there’s more to the story of their lives than what they had imagined there to be.
The film thrives on much more than just the “will-they-won’t-they” dynamic; above all, this is a parable of hope and the Forrest Gump-ian box of chocolates that life can be. The simplicity of the story belies the enormous skill behind the creation of this movie. Utilizing effective storytelling devices like routines and quirks to humanize and personalize these characters, stripping away the frills to the barest minimum required to tell the story, the film has much in common with the best short stories. This is what I imagine the cinematization of a short story by Rohinton Mistry or Jhumpa Lahiri or RK Narayan short story would look like. This almost literary approach to filmmaking is seen in Ritesh Batra’s economy and restraint – he is interested in conveying the impression of an emotion, a memory, a decision, not indulge in showy theatrics. Notice the Haneke-like refusal to follow Ila when she hears that her father has died. You can listen to her sobs but Batra’s camera decides not to intrude. All cinema is voyeurism, but this may be a more responsible and compassionate variety of it.
The acting is, quite frankly, exquisite. Nimrat Kaur wrings a believable, strong and endearing character out of a much-used and –abused stereotype, the Indian home-maker, which has been rescued in recent times by people like Richa Chadha and Mahie Gill. Nawazuddin’s role got the most guffaws in the theatre, with his charming “Good morning, sir”’s and wide open smile effortlessly winning the hearts of the audience. You can’t but be bowled over by how he juliennes vegetables on his files in a moving train. And Irrfan serves up an absolute stunner, reminding us once again of the fact that he’s one of India’s best actors. There’s a reason he doesn’t do “big” – he doesn’t have to. Every little nuance from the way he smells the dabbas as they are delivered to his desk, the way he looks at the happy family in the opposite building having dinner, the way he says, “Magar meri girlfriend hai”(“But I have a girlfriend”) – pitch-perfect, immaculate. A shout-out must also go out to veteran actress Bharati Achrekar who creates a wonderful character with nothing but her voice. She’s literally one of the few people who could have done it; no one else has such a feisty voice.
The Lunchbox is a very simple film in the tradition of the Iranian greats and this will put off a lot of people from seeing this movie. They do not believe they can be entertained by a film without melodrama, action, song-and-dance routines. But I know for a fact that just about everyone who came into the theatre that day left with a smile on their faces. They had just seen themselves on the screen, after all. And no matter how much fun a Sallu bhai flick can be, it’s always more exhilarating to see your own life on celluloid.
In the end, The Lunchbox is a film about a lunchbox. A lunchbox travelling across the city every day, carrying within it the fears, hopes, loves and aspirations of two people and embodying even more than just that – the poetry of everyday life.