The lunchbox

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By IN THE WORLD OF GREASY BIRYANIS, THE LUNCHBOX IS AS COMFORTING AS MAACHHER JHOL-BHAAT Pratim D. Gupta Should The Lunchbox be India’s entry to the Oscars next year? Tell
  • Published 21.09.13

Forrest Gump’s Momma had said: “Life is a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” In Ritesh Batra’s charming winner of a debut, that box, an innocuous four-decker stainless steel tiffin carrier, doesn’t carry chocolates but a dabba full of love, hope and company for two lonesome souls. And they never know what they’re gonna get in the box every day until they open it.

The Lunchbox is as much a moving and muted love story as it is an evocative portrayal of loneliness. It integrates Mumbai as this epicentre of broken bonds and new connections and in a way captures India in a state of flux. A set of people trying to move on but not giving up what they had. Everyone’s travelling — by train, bus, auto, scooter — but struggling to reach home.

It’s not just a coincidence then that one dabba is mis-delivered. Because as a recurring line from the film goes, “Kabhi kabhi galat train bhi sahi jagah pahuncha deti hai.”

At one station of that galat train is the about-to-retire, 35-years-in-the-same-office insurance claims clerk Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan). He is a widower with no purpose in life, a little crusty with little patience to teach the man replacing him, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the tricks of his trade.

And at the other end is Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young housewife who helplessly watches her husband drift away despite her domestic efforts to win him back. There’s more bleakness that surrounds her — the husband of the helpful Aunty upstairs has been in coma for the last 15 years and her own father is fighting lung cancer.

Ila and Saajan start stuffing their fractured lives into that dabba. She cooks and sends the filled lunchbox. He eats and sends the empty lunchbox back. And between the rotis in the dabba, she tucks away letters. She writes in Hindi, he replies in English.

In a day and age when our lives are connected through social networks and have become an electronic maze of hashtags and handles, messages and mentions, the two reach out to each other through handwritten letters. They sometimes exchange notes about the day’s headline but mostly share their own stories. After all, “we forget things if we have no one to tell them to”.

Although woven with the same thread as a You’ve Got Mail and The Japanese Wife, The Lunchbox is not so much about whether Ila and Saajan finally meet or go off to Bhutan, their promised getaway. It’s about sharing... food at first, then a few feelings, then some memories, and finally a dream or two. It’s like this whiff of hope in an air of melancholy, a ketchup smiley on a stale piece of bread.

The Lunchbox thrives on three matchless performances. New girl Nimrat, seen in many TV commercials (think Cadbury’s Silk, in car), is refreshing as the timid and tentative Ila. Lonely wives have been a dime a dozen on the big screen since Charulata but Nimrat strips off all the sentimentality to attach dignity and grace to the character. This one’s a sparkling debut.

Nawaz as the eager beaver has the crowd-happy part and he plays it to the galleries without ever looking out of place in the subdued scheme of things. His beaming “Hello Sir” every couple of scenes brings some much-needed energy to the relaxed narrative.

But then again you can spend a lifetime just watching Irrfan Khan look at a steel dabba. Curiosity, excitement, happiness, heartburn, pathos... emotions just leak out of his eyes effortlessly. Pooja Bhatt had once said that once you start rolling the camera on Irrfan’s face, you forget about switching it off. The Lunchbox shows you how.

In the middle of all the mainstream masala maelstrom, here is a film which wins you over with its innocence and simplicity. In the world of greasy biryanis, The Lunchbox is as comforting as maachher jhol-bhaat. You’ll come out licking your fingers.