The Lunchbox – Ritesh Batra’s mouthwatering debut. (SFF Film Review)
The Lunchbox is currently showing at the Sydney Film Festival
“Sometimes the wrong train can take you to the right destination.”
It is impossible to imagine some of our contemporary Hollywood screen “overaged loverboy’s” such as Mel Gibson in What Women Want, Jack Nicholson in Something’s gotta Give or Woody Allen in anything, pausing in their bathroom to recognise the “old man” smell is coming from them. This observation about the passing of time permeates The Lunchbox, and given Irrfan Khan’s youthfulness and good looks (he is only forty-seven after all) increases in poignancy as the film very gently unfolds toward’s its central premise that progress, while not always a good thing, is relentless and belongs, not only to the young, but also to the modern as if nostalgia is a piece of baggage one carries inside, regardless of one’s predilection for indulging. The Lunchbox is a charming film, delightful, romantic and enjoyable to watch, but its gentle power comes from a combination of its layered observations, and its detail on Indian life that use a cinematic language style (trope, genre or epistolary film if you prefer) to convey a new perspective that the genre sorely needs.
A thinking persons romance movie might be a good way to describe The Lunchbox. Saajan is an accountant in a government department who works with pen and paper to balance the accounts. He is accurate, punctual, and a widower. He is looking at an early retirement, and has been asked to train his replacement Shaikh, who is an ernest, irritating young man that Saajan initially tries to avoid. But after Shaikh claims to be an orphan who has been his own teacher and guide through his life, Saajan takes a sympathetic interest in him and starts his training.
Meanwhile, an intricate, sophisticated delivery system that picks up hot lunches from homes and restaurants (Dabbawala), delivers them to workers and picks up and returns the empty lunchboxes makes an impossible error and delivers Saajan the wrong lunch. His new lunch is delicious and far superior to anything he has received from the restaurant that keeps sending him cauliflower, and he is immediately entranced by the food. The lunch is in fact, prepared by Ila, a woman trying to seduce her husband back into their marital bed through delicious lunches from old recipes she collects. Saajan is seduced by the food, but puzzled as to where it came from. When Ila’s husband complains to her that there is too much cauliflower in his lunch, she realises there has been a mistake, and begins writing letters, wrapped in the roti at the base of the lunchbox, to the mystery person eating her lunches. Eventually Saajan shares a little of his lunch with Shaikh who describes Ila as a cook who has magic in her hands.
The Lunchbox continues down the inevitable path of love to the pair meeting, but this story is shrouded in a beautiful India, absurd and comical and yet a perfect fusion of the ultra modern and one of the most ancient civilisations in the world. Except for Ila’s distracted husband and his mobile phone, technology is absent from The Lunchbox, set in a country with the third highest internet use from its citizens in the world (which still only represents 12% of the population), and one of the most technologically advanced nations in terms of software development. Work is completed without computers, Ila calls up to her Aunty through an open window in the apartment, and Saajan watches his wife’s old television shows on video cassette. The couple use letters to correspond when Shaikh says to Saajan “Emails! Emails! Letters are old fashioned. No one uses letters. This is the age of emails!” First time director Ritesh Batra reveals rich lives in Saajan and Ila complimented by their ability to relate to what is immediately around them, no lack of sophistication present or accusations of provincialism in their observations about their world. In short, they don’t miss the internet, but they can see from their observations of the world around them that the world is changing. Both decide they need to change their lives, but their motivations are impossibly different and as Saajan correctly recognises, born of different eras. Ila’s confrontation with the past comes to the fore in her relationship with her parents, and her recognition that their relationship is not one she can have in her life. She has already studied in secret behind her parents back, now she must make a decision about unfulfilled marriage.
Among all the talk of time and change is some beautiful camera work by Michael Simmonds in capturing the hustle and bustle of contemporary Indian life. Scenes of Ila preparing food are mouth-watering, and its a strong recommendation you pop out for an Indian meal if you can after seeing the film. The streets of India are rich and beautiful, and the scenes of the Dabbawala are done documentary style, apparently using a four person camera crew to capture properly. It’s a beautiful, famous system, a kind of Menulog for home cooked meals if you like, that almost never fails. India’s pride in the development of the Dabbawala system, carried out mostly by illiterate locals who form close bonds with their clients is apparent all over Batra’s film, including the theory that sometimes the wrong train can bring you to the right destination, implying it’s not the Dabbawala’s that got Ila’s delivery wrong, it is that Ila married the wrong man. It’s these kinds of nuances that bring The Lunchbox alive and connect the viewer to the intimacies of Mumbai life as it is seen through this middle class pair. The Lunchbox is a beautiful film, that includes your heart and your mind in its seductions.