The Lunchbox is a 2013 Indian film written and directed by Ritesh Batra, set in Mumbai. Nominated for a BAFTA in the Film Not in the English Language category (alongside Ida, Leviathan, Trash and Two Days, One Night), The Lunchbox previously won the the Grand Rail d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
A crowded city, two strangers, handwritten letters, and an assortment of food – this is a film that isn’t easily packed into a box. Ditching the typical Bollywood formula of spectacle, colourful songs and often caricatured characters, it belongs to a gradually growing group of films that represent the evolution of Indian cinema. Its strength lies in its subtlety and unromanticised, realistic portrayal of the messiness and ordinariness of day-to-day life in a big city, where all people really want is to feel like they matter. In a film with all kinds of transport on busy roads, it’s really about people who feel stuck, isolated by routine and expectation.
The film begins with a lack of communication and the silence of people amidst noisy Bombay. The film focuses on three main characters, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young housewife, her inattentive husband and Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widower stewing in his self-imposed aloneness. While Ila seeks connection, Saajan renounces it. The film moves into miscommunication in the form of a mis-delivered lunchbox through Mumbai’s complicated but famously accurate “dabbawala” system. Intended for Ila’s husband, her lovingly packed lunch ends up at Saajan’s office. And then, suddenly, all kinds of communication begins to occur. Ila and Saajan exchange notes through the lunchbox every day, Ila’s unseen neighbour shouts well-meant advice from her window and a young employee at Saajan’s office eventually wears him down into talking. The flow of words held in for so long breathes life into the characters, drawing them from their shells as they find people who want to hear them, taking the audience deeper into their worlds as we laugh with them and feel their pain.
Even in modern Mumbai, the patriarchal nature of Indian society shines through and the woman’s role is primarily that of a caretaker and a cook for a husband. Ila goes a step further, striving to cook things her husband likes to get some sort of a response from him. Her worth is measured by the salt in her food. In contrast, there’s Ila’s mother, who is relieved at the death of her husband to finally find her own freedom. There’s also Ila’s neighbour whose life revolves around her husband’s comatose form as incessantly as the ceiling fan above his head. As Ila listens to these women that she gradually sees herself becoming, she realises that she need not depend on others to change her life.
It is in this realisation that Ila’s salvation lies – not the notes to a stranger that allowed her to voice what was stifling her. The film’s tagline asks, “Can you fall in love with someone you’ve never met?” but is this a special connection between two people – or is this finding new meaning because someone is interested enough to be your witness? The film leaves these questions open, reflecting the uncertainty of life and the unpredictability of relationships.
In an increasingly development-obsessed India that often misunderstands the meaning of progress, Ila chooses to escape to a place where she believes happiness is considered the ultimate goal. The end of the film is the start of another journey, with or without return. Though Ila and Saajan never meet, they have branched off on their own, the hint of a reconciliation remains. Perhaps they embrace the fact that not knowing where you’re headed is better than staying where you’re unwanted; that the important thing is that you’re moving toward something. After all, sometimes the wrong train does take us to the right place.
The Lunchbox is nominated for a BAFTA in the Film Not in the English Language category. The awards are due to be announced 8 February.