The Lunchbox answers a question I’ve been meaning to ask Mumbai locals, should I ever be privileged enough to visit Mumbai: What if dabbawalas get their wires crossed and deliver Mister A’s lunch to Mister Z, and vice versa? Would mayhem ensue? Would the whole system, which has been stamped with a seal of approval by Harvard, come crashing down, leaving thousands of office clerks, doctors, accountants hungry? The Lunchbox says no. What might happen instead, and I think this is far more likely, is that a malfunction like this would give strangers the opportunity to begin a correspondence.
For the ill-informed, dabbawalas are men in Mumbai who deliver food to the working population in much the same way that a taxi delivers people to the geographical population. It is quite a remarkable service if you think about it. Consider the size of Mumbai. Consider its population (we are given a glimpse in the movie’s opening shots, which show trains upon trains overflowing with commuters, literally). Now, take into your calculations the number of people who go to work every day and require lunch before the day’s up. That’s a lot of people. A lot of food. Spread out across a city that uses Pan’s Labyrinth as a blueprint.
Most Indians prefer home-cooked meals to eating the food from their office cafeterias. Issues with hygiene, I hear is the reason, which, in all honesty, is a fair call. Wives cook their husbands lunch, pack it up in neat little canisters and pass them over to the dabbawalas, who then boy scout their way across the city. I read that dabbawalas deliver the goods no matter the weather condition. Hurricane, you say? No problem. I’ll put on a poncho. They are so efficient, and so accurate, that had they been Sicilians in the 1940s, they’d have been drug traffickers for the Mafia, and you’d now be living in a city run by a Don.
I have devoted two paragraphs to dabbawalas because I find them amazing. They are completely devoted to their craft — yes, it is a craft — and they never falter, except when The Lunchbox requires them to. The canisters are coded (in the language of the dabbawala), and I find it extraordinary that they can pinpoint their destinations, although I am pretty sure each dabbawala is assigned his own coverage zone by a higher power. But what I find most remarkable is that not one of them tries to steal any food. If I were them, my load would be halved before I even board the train, which is why I’m clearly not them and never will be.
Now I must shift to the movie, which is the whole point of this review in the first place (let it be known that I think a serious, heartfelt movie should be made about the dabbawalas). The Lunchbox is not about food delivery, though in a way it is; it’s about the correspondence I mentioned at the start.
Directed by Ritesh Batra, the beginning of The Lunchbox is sublime misdirection of the smartest sort where we meet Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a somewhat forlorn housewife and mother whose husband might be having an affair. With the help of her upstairs neighbour, with whom she communicates via projected shouts and a pulley basket, she concocts the mother of all curries in the hopes of regaining her husband’s affection — “I thought the way to his heart would first be through his stomach”. Practical logic, considering food to Indians is like beer to Australians.
The curry gets delivered to a man seated at a desk in an accounting firm. We think this is the husband, Rajeev. He opens the canister, looks a bit baffled, smells the food, then begins eating. Ila receives the empty canister that evening with a note: The food was a bit salty today. My ungrateful husband! She is shattered. Her neighbour calls him names. Rajeev comes home and compliments her cauliflower. But I didn’t cook cauliflower. What’s happening?
So begins the correspondence between Ila and her mysterious man, Saajan (Irrfan Khan), which gradually develops into a quest for new love (Saajan lost his wife many years ago and now lives the life of a reclusive curmudgeon). You’d think, by what I’ve been saying, that Ila and Saajan sink into a hackneyed romance in which they share hopes and fantasies through their letters, meet in splendour one day and enjoy the rest of their days eating curry together out of steel canisters while Rajeev continues enjoying his cauliflower. In an Americanised version, yes, you’d be spot on. But not here, where Batra treats his characters with real passion and affection.
Ila opens up about her marriage. Saajan about his past, in language so eloquent and sweet it borders on poetry. Khan, whom you’ll remember from Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi (2012), plays Saajan as a soft man, deeply wounded, even though he presents himself to others as a sturdy loner. Opposite him is Kaur, who graces her scenes with understated beauty. What I liked best about her is that she never takes off on selfish idealistic quests; she remembers her role as a mother, a little detail that pays off in a big way.
This is one of the best romance movies. I got involved in the characters. I started to like Ila and Saajan; I hoped against hope that they would be each other’s Happily Ever After. But the ending is not so generous, and I think that’s a wise move. Where Ila and Saajan end up must be kept a secret, because all the pleasure in the movie builds to it. They began talking because a dabbawala messed up. One can only hope they get married because a dabbawala points them in the right direction.
Best Moment | A scene I really cannot mention. I’ll spot details: A tie; a mirror; shaving cream; a restaurant; empty food canisters.
Worst Moment | Nope.