By DIANA CHENG
CALGARY (May 15, 2014) — 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, five thousand dabbawallahs, or lunchbox deliverymen, would fetch the dabbas from homes after housewives have filled them with hot food and deliver them 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 and 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 system and found that only one in a million of these dabbas would ever get lost.
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), 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 other wins for the film. His subtle and nuanced performance requires no dialogues. Indeed, both Saajan and Ila have not shared a frame together. 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 revealing to watch how writer and director Ritesh Batra gradually shows 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.
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.
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.
Contact Diana Cheng on Twitter @Arti_Ripples or through her blog Ripple Effects, rippleeffects.wordpress.com.”