Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Directed by Ritesh Batra
It’s easy to understand the universal appeal of The Lunchbox. Most big, busy cities like Mumbai have a way of isolating people, of making them feel terribly lonely in a crowd. The Lunchbox is a seemingly simple but profoundly felt story about such lonesome, drifting souls who find a rare bonding and anchor in each other. It is a film that makes you smile through its sadness.
There is Ila (Nimrat), trying out new recipes to woo her indifferent husband, with a little help from the neighbour aunty who we hear, but never see (the voice: Bharti Achrekar). Then there is the eccentric, unsmiling widower Saajan (Irrfan), unpopular amongst children of his neighbourhood, about to retire from a job of many years and handing over charge to a younger and more cheerful Nawazuddin. A dabba brings Ila and Saajan together. The lunchbox with the green cover, which should have gone to Ila’s husband, gets delivered by mistake to Saajan one day. And then day after day.
The banality of his life is beautifully broken by the flavours and smells of food cooked with love. Ila finds connection and communication with a stranger through the letters she exchanges with him in the folds of the rotis. Slowly, they begin opening up in the comfort of each other. She confesses how there is nothing much to her life, talks about the brother’s suicide, her ailing father, and of some day escaping to Bhutan—topper in the gross national happiness index. He recollects his wife’s Sunday ritual of watching the TV serial Ye Jo Hai Zindagi and wonders what if he also went to Bhutan with Ila. Letters reveal all, help them unburden. Slowly, they begin to smile.
Batra brings out the humdrum of his characters’ lives with little deft touches. Like the fans. Their whirring drone in Saajan’s office or in the neighbour aunty’s house, keeping her comatose husband alive. On the other hand, he captures the dabba culture of Mumbai with an almost documentary-like realism.
Beyond the Saajan-Ila interaction there are other relationships of significance, especially Saajan’s growing bonding with the orphan Nawaaz or Ila’s longstanding one with the “aunty”. Pitch perfect acting brings the characters alive. Irrfan lets his eyes talk and literally breaks your heart when he writes to Ila about his old age and thanking her for giving space to him in her young life. Nimrat can emote all manner of shades with just a twitch of the face, like when she literally smells out deception from her husband’s shirt. And Nawaaz is delightfully irritating, especially while chopping veggies in the local train.
As the film says, sometimes the wrong train can take you to the right destination. Will the wrongly delivered letter eventually take Ila and Saajan to Bhutan, literally and metaphorically? And together at that? Watch and find out.