There was some controversy at the end of 2013 when The Lunchbox was not selected to be India’s nominee for the foreign language film Oscar. It was supplanted by The Good Road, which has not been considered as good and that ended up not making the final short list. While I don’t know if The Lunchbox could have taken home the honors, this debut feature film from Ritesh Batra is a mature effort that will linger on your tongue days after you see it.
The film stars Irrfan Khan as Saajan Fernandes, an office accountant on the verge of retirement, who is to train his replacement, Ahmed Shaikh, played by the ebullient Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The female lead, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a stay-at-home mother whose husband doesn’t appreciate her or her food. Her main interactions during the day, when her daughter is at school, are with the un-seen “auntie” Mrs. Deshpande (Bharati Achrekar) residing in the apartment above her. When a rare mix-up in the precise dabbawallah delivery system results in a lunch packed for her husband, with note a note entrusted inside, to get switched with the pre-ordered food meant for Saajan, the two engage in regular correspondence via the dabba (lunchbox) ferried back and forth.
In many ways, the weakest aspect of the film is the character’s back stories. Batra crafts stereotypical acts of a curmudgeonly old man onto Saajan, like not helping children retrieve a ball that is on his property. It is hard to believe his character is old enough for retirement but the story necessitates it (the actor Khan is 47 and not likely to retire soon). Ila too has a background verging on stereotype. When she finds out her husband is cheating on her, she remains unlikely to do anything about it leaving herself a miserable captive in a “prison” — a term Batra has used to describe the situation of both lead characters lives.
The characters’ development can be traced through the letters, as their conversation moves from food to TV shows to visiting Bhutan, making the titular traveling lunchbox a character in its own right. Through it, the graceful Kaur reveals Ila’s deep longing. She writes to Saajan with as great a relish as he possesses for devouring her food, and tries to absolve herself from her misfortune. Meanwhile, Khan is such a dignified actor that it is easy to emote with him. From the way he hesitantly approaches retirement, afraid of losing purpose to his life, to the deep whiffs he takes of Ila’s home-cooked food at his desk, earning sidelong glances from his neighbor for his peculiarity, Saajan is an everyman who realizes life has lulled him.
Shaikh, on the other hand, is a character fully aware of his situation and free of any prison — except that of Indian society. He has not been able to marry his love because her father disproves of his lower, orphan position but charting a course into the professional world will help remedy that. Siddiqui is so utterly charming as the optimistic Shaikh that he seems foolish at first. But, as his wonderful, comic character is developed, he challenges Saajan to open up and the two form a father-son type relationship.
Sharing their lives via letters reveals the sad, poignant realities of Ila and Saajan’s lives yet the correspondence fosters a sweet transformation. Given the nuanced acting and the graceful direction in which Batra develops the story, his film is delightfully rich with realism. His savory ending makes The Lunchbox flavorful enough to satisfy both Indian and Western audiences.