Film Review: The Lunchbox, ‘Letters, Chillies, and Memories’

Set between an apartment block in suburban Mumbai and a modest office floor, The Lunchbox is a film of understated elegance exploring human emotions and connections. Ila (played by Nimrat Kaur) is a young, middle-class Indian woman who is desperately trying to rekindle a waning marriage by preparing her husband delicious lunches that are delivered by the ‘Dabbawala’ system that is widely acclaimed for its efficiency; Dabbawala is an Indian word for men who deliver vast numbers of lunchboxes hanging off the sides of their bicycle in Mumbai and some other cities in India.

In a rare and fateful twist of events the Dabbawala, rather than delivering Ila’s husband his lunchbox, delivers it to Saajan (played by Irfan Khan), a recluse elderly accountant who is due to retire soon. Sajaan’s social isolation after his wife passed away transforms his life into a state of apathetic existence; he is totally oblivious to his neighbours and work colleagues. Through the exchange of daily letters in the lunchbox, the viewer is gently introduced to the slow development of a charming and sensitive relationship between Ila and Saajan, both yearning for warmth, affection and a human connection.

The background to their story portrays a society where in spite of the crowded houses, buses and offices, many people are still suffering from loneliness. Ila’s mother is alone in caring for her bed-ridden husband after losing her son to depression and suicide. Ila’s elderly neighbour is also caring for a disabled husband, and that relationship is her only connection to human beings. Sajaan’s work colleague Shaikh (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is also ostracised being born an orphan.

The film director Ritesh Batra delicately and creatively explores universal themes of social isolation, depression and suicide, intergenerational bonds and human dependency without resorting to the clichés of Bollywood in its lavish songs and dance numbers. Still the director’s respect for Indian cinema features strongly in the film’s narrative where Ila and Sajaan share intimate notes about classic Indian films and songs that shaped their family and childhood memories. In their respective states of isolation and depression, hope comes in the form of an elusive dream of a future life of eternal happiness in Bhutan.
Skilfully playing with vignettes of human connection, the film also introduces us to a funny ‘auntie’ (Ila’s top flat neighbour); auntie (who we hear but never get to see) is always there giving Ila delicious food recipes full of chillies and a dash of worldly wisdom on the side.

In Sajaan’s case, his soul reaching out for friendship finds its soul-mate in his work colleague and later friend Shaikh. Both Sajaan’s relationship with Shaikh and Ila’s relationship with auntie are wonderful affirmation of the human need for companionship, friendship and sharing regardless of age, place or time. Using subtle cinematic images and poignant interactions, the audience are gently embraced into a meaningful bond between two human beings trapped in a stagnant existence in a challenging society. Although solace can be found through remembering fond memories shared with dead people, human beings still need each other to achieve peace and maybe happiness; Sajaan writes to Ila in one of his letters ‘People will forget their memories if they have no one to tell them to’.

‘The Lunchbox’ directed by Ritesh Batra (India, 2013)

Edited by Dr Khalid Ali: The ‘Screening Room’ editor.

Author: Dr Nikesh Parekh, Academic Foundation Year 2, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals’ Trust.

Address for correspondence: Dr Nikesh Parekh, drnparekh@gmail.com

 

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