Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox is a film about loneliness and emotional wiltedness. A widower, Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), lives alone in an aged, slightly dingy house in Bandra, Mumbai, and works at an insurance company as an accountant. He is standoffish and reclusive, almost misanthropic, bogged down by the weight of unexpressed feelings. He silently labours over reams of paper files, and eats his lunch, delivered by a dabbawala, alone at the office’s sparse canteen. Batra, also the screenplay writer, invests Saajan and his surroundings with the kind of existentialism that is all too familiar in a big city.
Will someone or something pull Saajan out of his funk?
It is a story that would strike a chord with anybody, anywhere. There is not much complexity. It derives its soul and effectiveness in good performances and Batra’s elegant economy in executing his material. Although it is about sad characters, The Lunchbox has a safety-cap of feel-good reassurance. One of the joys of watching a movie is identifying and empathizing with characters that we have known or have ourselves been, and in the consolation that we are not alone. There is also all the Punjabi food that Ila (Nimrat Kaur), the grief-stricken but tenacious lead woman, cooks—we see hands dribbled in batter, before the coated paneer chunks go into simmering oil, and the act of eating with slow relish. Already a global festival favourite, Batra’s film, besides being a very comforting watch, is a representative Indian film in that the food-obsessed Indian is in almost every frame.
There is rich material for serious acting here, because Batra’s narrative has no excess, and Khan, in the riveting central role, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Nimrat Kaur, make excellent use of it. One day, when Saajan opens his dabba, he discovers that the food he has been eating every day has transformed—it has become delicious. In a serendipitous slip of Mumbai’s efficient dabbawala chain, the dabba meant for him gets switched with that of a man who is in a loveless marriage with Ila. Ila lives in a predominantly Hindu middle-class neighbourhood and is as lonely as Saajan. She tries to be creative with the lunch she sends her husband, in an attempt to rekindle her husband’s interest in her. Ila’s constant companion is a voice (Bharati Achrekar), a lady who lives above her with her comatose husband, who vociferously offers her advice and reminders—I kept thinking of Mrs Wolowitz in Big Bang Theory, but this lady is even funnier. Saajan and Ila begin a bare-it-all correspondence through letters until the highlight of their days becomes the opening of these letters. Meanwhile, a new employee, Aslam (Siddiqui), joins Saajan’s company, to take over Saajan’s work after his impending retirement. Despite Saajan’s deadpan cynicism and Aslam’s sprightly earnestness, the two men forge a bond.
Irrfan Khan’s well-gauged depiction of Saajan’s rich inner life and his second attempt at an emotional life is the film’s solid centre. Khan’s capacity to convey pathos has not so far been so effectively extracted. His character spends most of his time alone, and the actor goes for the role with slight shifts of gaze and half smiles. He uses the pithy writing artfully, optimizing their dramatic potential. The Lunchbox is very much Irrfan Khan’s vehicle, and it is hard to imagine anyone filling these shoes so well.
Siddiqui’s performance is energetic and effortless. His character is meant to be not just a foil to Saajan, but we are also able to able laugh at Saajan because of Aslam. Aslam has one tone, but Siddiqui makes him endearing and so believable. Thanks to him, the story gets a sense of cheer about the small things, so crucial to keep the momentum of hope going.
Nimrat Kaur plays the most demanding role. Ila has more layers because her dilemmas revolve around many roles—mother of a young girl, a helpless daughter, a grudging wife and a person desperate for a “high happiness index”. Kaur is extremely effective in the role. It is the promise of an actor waiting to ripe.
The other character in the film is Mumbai the city. The research on the dabbawala system shows; and Batra’s gaze on them is almost like that of a documentarian. Especially resonant in their portrayal are their songs, which they sing in chorus inside local train compartments, clapping their hands in symphony. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds captures the claustrophobia of local trains and human clusters on streets with minimum gimmickry. But the milieus around the characters strike some discordant notes. Saajan Fernandes, perhaps intentionally similar to Scrooge, is unmoved by children playing in his neighbourhood; he has little connection with those who live next door to him, and has no recognizable trait or quirk of a Catholic man living in a close-knit Bandra neighbourhood. Bandra is one of Mumbai’s most distinguishable, electric neighbourhoods. It almost appears as if Batra made Saajan Catholic because he wanted the quaint neighbourhood and the run-down, Portugese -style mansion as his backdrops. Similarly, Ila’s neighbourhood is aspecific and without any character.
While being an immensely enjoyable and competent film, the universality of The Lunchbox tends to exclude its setting’s all-important provinciality.
The Lunchbox releases in theatres on Friday.