Most of us have been hearing something or the other about Ritesh Batra’s “The Luncbox” aka ‘Dabba’ in the last 2 years but thanks to this year’s Cannes Film Festival the film was all over us. There have been a few occasions in the past where the so called “intelligent” audience and Twitterati have gone all bonkers about a particular movie and I remained unmoved after watching the same. I was seriously hoping that this will not be another such film which would flatter to deceive. Luckily the promo of the film established an initial connect, which can really work in favour of the film sometimes. Thus when an opportunity to watch the film came my way a few weeks ago one Saturday afternoon, I knew I had to just drop everything and dash off to make it for the screening. It turned out to be one of the best things I have done on a Saturday, more about that later. And now finally the film is releasing in a couple of days, something that the target audience has been looking forward to eagerly.
Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan) is a widower and an accountant working in the claims department of an organization. He is on the verge of superannuation and is about to leave Mumbai and settle down at Nashik. He has a standard routine, getting his daily lunch ‘dabba’ delivered from his regular restaurant, maintains regular work hours and sticks to the same bus & train timings in terms of travel. Saajan is a sort of loner and is not seen to socialize much. He is unpopular with the kids in the neighbourhood and doesn’t mind what others think about him. In short Saajan is a simple middle aged man, leading life on his own terms.
In sharp contrast is Ila (Nimrat Kaur) a housewife who is trying to make use of her culinary skills and win back the attention of her husband (Nakul Vaid) who doesn’t seem to be interested in her any more. Ila is constantly encouraged in this pursuit by Deshpande aunty (voice of Bharti Achrekar) and she is her friend, philosopher and guide of sorts. One fine day Ila with the help of some instructions from Deshpande aunty prepares a special lunch for her husband and sends it across. But the usually flawless dabbawala makes a mistake and the dabba gets delivered to Saajan instead. Ila does realize that the dabba got exchanged by mistake and sends a thank you note to Saajan the next day and in turn gets a smart reply from Saajan. Soon Ila and Saajan start exchanging notes regularly and Ila in particular feels happy to share the details of her life to one more individual apart from Deshpande aunty. As the exchange of notes continues Ila continues to whip up interesting recipes for Saajan and we continue to see the unusual bond between Ila and Saajan flourishing.
When all this is happening we also see the contrast between the characters of Saajan and Aslam Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), with Aslam being the person slated to replace Saajan. The Dongri resident Aslam is a loquacious and easy going person who has already faced many hardships in life and learnt to tackle them with a smile. Initially Saajan is wary of Aslam and does everything he can to snub him, but Aslam continues making an attempt at getting friendly with Saajan and finally his perseverance pays off. The Lunchbox is a film which goes beyond just these 3 main characters and talks about so much more. Lots of Hindi films have tried to pay tribute to the city of Mumbai but the way The Lunchbox goes about doing it has to be seen to understand how genuine one should be while doing so. The dabbawala system in Mumbai is something that the whole World has made note of but no feature film so far has integrated it so beautifully within the story without making it stick out like a sore thumb.
What’s also interesting about The Lunchbox is that it makes a honest attempt at representing the actual city of Mumbai. Generally filmmakers tend to believe that showcasing Mumbai means South Mumbai or Andheri whereas Ritesh Batra shows that the city has a lot more than that as we get to see places like Malad, Matunga, Dongri and more such places in equal measure. The city’s lifeline i.e the Mumbai local trains also gets its own share of glory in the film. While the film is definitely set in contemporary Mumbai, there is an old World charm that the film brings, in many ways. Be it the preference of Saajan and Ila to use handwritten notes in the age of social media tools & smartphones, the presence of the iconic Koolar Café at Matunga, the Hindi songs of the 90’s (Saajan), popular Doordarshan serials like Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi and other such references.
The film is also a rare example of food being so much in focus and needless to say it won’t be a surprise to actually start feeling hungry in the middle of the film while seeing all the lovely dishes made by Ila. It’s good to see filmmakers in India these days coming up with interesting films revolving around food like Salt N’ Pepper and Ustad Hotel in Malayalam and Stanley Ka Dabba and Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana in Hindi. The Lunchbox also is a fine example of the fact that true love needs no rules or boundaries to flourish. For all the glitz and jazz associated with regular romantic films of late, this one is a strong exception. There is no grandeur, the setting is totally realistic and there is no unnecessary attempt to play on the audience emotions. The very fact that despite all this one relishes this dabba/lunchbox is an achievement for Ritesh Batra’s writing.
The film is also a true blue International film in every sense, the film’s producers include ROH Films from Germany, ASAP Films from France and Cine Mosaic from U.S.A apart from Indian players like Sikhya Entertainment, DAR Motion Pictures and NFDC. The technical crew includes internationally renowned music composer Max Richter (who’s worked on films like Waltz with Bashir), editor John F.Lyons (who’s worked on films like Sphere, The Seige etc), DOP Michael Simmonds (who’s worked on films like Goodbye Solo, Paranormal Activity 2 etc) and needless to say the presence of these people has given the desired impetus to the film.For a film that talks about unique relationships there’s also a strong undercurrent of humour which blends in subtly in the background.
Irrfan Khan is by now one of the more dependable actors in Bollywood and there’s a reason why he’s popular overseas as well. If you really want to know the reason you just need to watch The Lunchbox as you’ll see how well he slips into the character given to him. As Saajan Fernandez he goes through a whole gamut of emotions as his character graph takes shape in the film. Nawazuddin Siddiqui brings the desired quirkiness to the character of Aslam Shaikh pretty well and you can’t but smile seeing him go about trying to complete part of his dinner preparation by cutting & chopping vegetables on the train while heading home. Nimrat Kaur who has been seen in a few commercials earlier and also briefly in Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana makes her presence felt in the film as she puts in a commendable performance as Ila. Here is a good actress in the making who should go places now after such a fine performance.
Ritesh Batra who had earlier made a mark with some of his short films has made a strong entry to feature films with The Lunchbox. The film which took shape thanks to the research done by him on the Dabbawalas of Mumbai for a documentary on them, eventually seems to have not just done justice to his research but also gone the extra mile to deliver a contemporary tale with a dash of old World charm, paying a fantastic tribute to the city of Mumbai as well. With UTV and Karan Johar also getting associated with the film I sincerely hope that the film gets a reasonably good release as it should reach out to the audience in the best possible manner. This film also stands testimony to the fact that not all festival films are meant for a select audience alone. The Lunchbox has something in store for everyone and while the film may have been made on a small budget it certainly does have a large heart. For all those out there thinking if all the hype and goodwill being generated for the film is worth it, I would sincerely advise you to go watch the film. Chances are that you may end up feeling hungry during the middle of the film and at the end have tears of joy or a broad smile on your face. Undoubtedly the finest Hindi film of 2013 so far in my opinion, I am all set to go meet Saajan, Ila, Aslam and co once again this weekend.