The Lunchbox (2013): A Meal that Binds

The Lunchbox premiered at Cannes last year. Since then, it had appeared in many other international film festivals, nabbing nominations and wins. I missed it at TIFF last September, so am glad I’ve the chance to watch it in the theatre recently. Here’s my review published in the May 18 issue of Asian American Press, a weekly newspaper based in Minneapolis, MN. That’s right, folks, it’s globalization.

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The Lunchbox Movie Poster

The lunchbox, dabba, is a stackable unit of four or five round metal cans fastened by straps on the side that flip up to attach to a handle on top. Every day in Mumbai, India, five thousand dabbawallahs, or lunchbox deliverymen, would fetch the dabbas from homes after housewives have filled them with hot food and deliver the tiffin to their husbands in their offices. After lunch, they would return the empty dabbas back to each home.

In Mumbai alone, there are five thousands dabbawallahs, many of them illiterate. For one hundred and twenty years, they carry dozens of dabbas on their bicycles, negotiate the mass of humanity and impossible street traffic and railways to bring office workers a hot meal from home, or from dabba preparation outlets. Harvard University had studied their inexplicable coding and delivery system. Their finding: only one in a million of these dabbas would ever get lost.

dabbawallah

If you think the title is too mundane for a movie, then just focus on that one-in-a million lost lunchbox. It is picked up from a young housewife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), and delivered to the wrong recipient, Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi, 2012), a retiring office worker who has been on the job for thirty-five years. Thus begins the exchange of short notes then letters placed inside these tiffin cans, two strangers who are socially worlds apart, but joined together by a savory meal.

The veteran actor Irrfan Khan won Best Actor at the 8th Asian Film Awards in March this year for his role in The Lunchbox, adding to his several other wins for the film. His subtle and nuanced performance requires no dialogues. Indeed, both Saajan and Ila have not shared a frame together in the movie. I would not so much call this a romantic comedy as their relationship is purely platonic. The romance could well be the ideals and dreams they stir up in each other’s mind through the exchange of written notes. If there is anything comedic it comes as finding a listening ear, a slight relief from the mundane and inescapable in life.

It is interesting to watch how writer/director Ritesh Batra reveals to us the dabba as a metaphor. Like the stackable cans, the story is multi-layered. It touches on marriage, human connections, memories, and dreams. From the mass of humanity, we focus on two individuals striving to find meaning in their daily existence. Like the fastener that strap tight the cans of the dabba, Ila is caught in a loveless marriage with her husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid), and the aging Saajan is bound by memories of his late wife.

Ila prepares lunch

The film begins with Ila’s attempt to make a delicious meal for her husband Rajeev to win back his heart through his stomach, an advice from an upstairs neighbor Ila calls Auntie (Bharati Achrekar). Ila communicates with Auntie by talking out of her kitchen window. Herein lies the subtle humor of the movie. We do not see Auntie, except just hear her voice. She is like an invisible adviser to Ila’s love life. Poignantly, Auntie herself has been taking care of her own husband, Uncle, who is bedridden and in a comatose state for fifteen years. If life is a bondage like the dabba, Auntie doesn’t show it a bit from her cheerful voice.

Ila’s delicious meals soon get through to the heart of Saajan, the mistaken recipient. Saajan lives alone, and seems to be heading straight to even more meaningless days in his retirement. The note exchanges gradually break through his isolation. Further, albeit reluctantly, he has to train his replacement at work, the young and enthusiastic Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Now this is one lively character that not only offers a humorous foil to the withdrawn Saajan, but like Auntie, Shaikh is optimistic about life, even though he has grown up an orphan. Soon, Shaikh has broken down the barrier with Saajan and the two establish a kind of father/son relationship.

Saajan & Shaikh

With The Lunchbox, his debut feature, Batra has won several screenplay and directing awards. He is definitely one promising filmmaker to watch. His approach here is naturalistic. Shooting on location in Mumbai, the camera captures realistic, ethnographic street scenes and the mass on public transits, telling this Mumbai story in situ. Through the handwritten notes hidden in the mundane dabba, delivered by a traditional human service, the film vividly shows us that even in our day of emails and instant messaging, the route to connect is still through the human heart.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples 

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Related Movie Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Life of Pi (2012): The Magical 3D Experience

English Vinglish (2012)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

The Namesake (2006): Movie Review

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

27 thoughts on “The Lunchbox (2013): A Meal that Binds”

  1. This sounds like a lovely movie, one with much heart and a few quiet lessons along the way. I am rather enamoured with films/books that where a relationship is set up through a serendipitous and unplanned happening. “84 Charing Cross Road” comes to mind. This appears to have much to offer. I suspect I’ll have to wait for video for this one — but it’s one I’ll look for.

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    1. Jeanie,

      There must be an art-house movie theatre in your vicinity, isn’t there? I find that the films I enjoy most are usually indies, which you can’t find in the Cineplex. Interesting that you thought of ’84 Charing Cross Road’. I’d say, maybe it’s more like ‘You’ve Got Mail’ but in a low-tech, cultural context. In this day and age, it’s refreshing to see a human service as the dabbawallahs bringing not just meals, but written notes to link people up. It’s quite an original idea I think.

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    1. JoAnn,

      Yes, the Cannes and other Festival movies from last year are beginning to surface on our big screens now. I’d be curious to know what you think of this one. 😉

      Like

    1. Athira,

      You see, I’m viewing the film as an ‘outsider’. You probably have more experience with the culture. I’m very eager to know your reaction to it after you’ve seen it, if it comes your way one day. Do come back and share with us. 😉

      Like

  2. My daughter and I saw this movie together a couple of weeks ago and we both loved it. On the way home we couldn’t help wondering if Ila was going to mail her last letter and what would happen if she did…

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    1. Barbara,

      The film leaves an open ending, doesn’t it? Different viewers would imagine very different scenarios. I like it just because of that. Glad you and your daughter both enjoyed it.

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    1. Thanks, Stefanie. I’ve been writing movie reviews for AAPress for two years now. Actually, they’re located on University Ave. in St. Paul, MN. You’re much closer to them than I am. 😉

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  3. When I read your first review of this film, I hadn’t yet had that experience with the inscribed book, or experienced how a single well-traveled volume could pull together so many strangers. It puts the plot of this film in quite a different light. Events that might seem contrived to some are, in fact, quite possible. I’m even more eager to see it now.

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    1. Linda,

      The Lunchbox is not based on a book. First time director Ritesh Batra wrote the screenplay himself. No matter, if you come by this film in your area, check it out. It’s a very different experience. I’m afraid you have to switch your eyes back and forth from the subtitles in the bottom to the main frame. 😉

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      1. Oh – I didn’t mean that the film came from a book. I was referring to the book I purchased that came with an inscription, from which I tracked down the people involved. You might have missed the post about it, and hence the reference.
        As for the subtitles – that’s no problem!

        Like

  4. Lovely review of a delightful film, Arti. We saw it a couple of weeks ago and were entranced from beginning to end. So finely observed, and such quiet acting. Loved the insight into modern India alongside the coverage of more universal emotions like live and friendship. I thought the ending was excellent. (Oh and I so wanted to eat some of that food!)

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    1. WG,

      Our theatres here in Cowtown are so limited in scope. You only see major Hollywood blockbusters, seldom do we see quality films from other countries. Glad I finally got to see this one. I’ll be heading to TIFF again this year. Looking forward to it. 😉

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            1. I just checked IMDb, it was first released at Sundance Jan. this year, so it’s highly likely I just might be able to catch it at TIFF in Sept. If I can get the ticket that is. I so look forward to TIFF, several films I highly anticipate might screen there, like Carey Mulligan’s Far from the Madding Crowd and The Suffragette.

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