The Lunchbox movie: ‘Exceptional film’ that deserved an Oscar nomination
The Lunchbox / Dabba was not the Film Federation of India’s submission to the 2014 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. This was reported as controversial at the time, particularly in the Indian film community. The Film Federation chose instead Gyan Correa’s The Good Road, which failed to be shortlisted by the Academy. We have not seen The Good Road, but it’d better be really good; otherwise, the harsh criticism of India’s Film Federation will be justified: The Lunchbox, writer-director Ritesh Batra’s debut feature, is an exceptional film, crafted to present an India that is profoundly traditional in many ways, yet emotionally modern, with characters engaged in deep reflection on the past and the deepest consideration of the future.
In fact, The Lunchbox is a wonderful movie that might or might not have won the little gold statuette in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It might not have even been selected by the Academy – which, for whatever reason, missed a number of films that ought to have been in competition, among them Gloria, Blue is the Warmest Color, In the Fog and Touch of Sin – but it certainly would have been a worthy competitor among the somewhat vexing selection of the world’s best films, in any language, Sunday last. Be that as it may, The Lunchbox should certainly get a shot at filmgoer’s wallets, particularly those who like really good movies.
Mumbai’s ‘legendary’ lunchbox delivery system
In Mumbai, the decades-old system for delivering lunch to thousands of office workers in the city’s densely populated business district is legendary. As pointed out in The Lunchbox, Harvard management experts have studied the definitely low-tech system to understand its efficacy, which involves hundreds of delivery men picking and dropping off hand-packed lunches in specially designed “tins”; the transit of these tins by bike, scooter, and train; and their timely delivery to the individual desks of specific recipients, all by the lunch hour. And then, the safe return of those lunchboxes to their proper homes well before the husband’s return at the end of the workday. It is an astounding feat, executed every day, with nary a lunchbox lost or misdelivered. Until this movie.
As The Lunchbox opens, the dabbawalas of Mumbai crisscross the city picking up tins in brightly colored carrying bags they dangle precariously off their bikes and scooters as they make their way through the city. Meanwhile, Ila (beautiful and talented Nimrat Kaur) prepares a meal with great care with assistance from her upstairs neighbor whom she calls Auntie, as all young women refer to older women in traditional India. We never see Auntie, she is a voice who calls down from on high (literally) with sage wisdom, and delivers special ingredients for Ila’s beautifully prepared meals via a basket tied to a string. The dabba arrives and Ila sends her meal along with great expectation. This lunch, with Auntie’s special ingredients, is meant to reach her husband’s heart through his stomach. Which is apparently an old adage of many cultures.
Instead, the lunchbox lands on the desk of Saajan (Irrfan Khan of Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire), a widower nearing retirement, and whose profound sadness resides in Khan’s big brown eyes – such that little is required by way of backstory and very little is proffered. In short order, both parties realize that “the thing that never happens” has happened and a correspondence begins. Through the notes they pass back and forth in the lunchbox, Ila and Saajan come to know each other, to support each other and to – in a way Western audiences seldom see and never understand – fall in love.
‘Thing that never happens’ happening
There is much more. All of it lovely, particularly as captured by Ritesh Batra, a director who favors long languid takes and wide shots that reveal a character’s settings and their relationship to their environment: the office, the kitchen, the train, etc., all of which is both revealing and meaningful. Even the language, which drifts between Hindi and English effortlessly, reveals something about when and where we are. The letters between Ila and Saajan begin with a lightness – quips about the delicious food Ila has prepared – later evolving into poetic tomes where deepest fears and regrets are revealed.
In a story that pivots on a “thing that never happens” happening, the consequences of the divergence from the norm must be profound not only for the players in the narrative but for we who experience the story as well. The Lunchbox, sweet and bitter, full of heartache and hope, earns the right to ask its audience to accept the divergence, the possibility that something “new” can happen, and then revel in the possibilities.
The Lunchbox / Dabba (2013)
Direction & Screenplay: Ritesh Batra.
Cast: Nimrat Kaur. Irrfan Khan. Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Lillete Dubey.
Nimrat Kaur in The Lunchbox movie image: Sony Pictures Classics.