What is it about densely populated cities? A person, surrounded by crowds of people, can feel lonelier than if they had retired alone to the countryside. In this film, almost every speaking part is given to a character who feels this loneliness keenly, and it is no wonder that when they come together in different ways, they arrive at a tacit, sympathetic understanding of each other’s emotional vulnerability.
Ila is a housewife in modern-day Mumbai. She has a young daughter, whom she dresses for school every morning and watches leave to catch the school-bus from her window. She then cooks her husband’s lunch for him, often under the guidance of ‘Auntie’, who lives in the apartment above and shouts down instructions to her. She arranges the food inside in an intricately constructed lunchbox, which is then taken to her husband via the services of a dabbawala. After this, there’s shopping and household chores to be done until her daughter returns home, and then, much later, her husband Rajeev, who is always busy, cold, and replies largely in monosyllables.
One morning, the lunchbox arrives at the wrong destination. At the beginning of the film, we are shown how so many lunchboxes make their way across Mumbai, via bicycles and train, and are also shown how Rajeev’s lunchbox arrives at someone else’s desk. How realistic this set-up is – that a homemade lunchbox could be mistaken for a commercial one, over and over – I don’t know. The film never explains why this mistake is repeated endlessly. To some extent, it’s neither here nor there: the point being made is that in such a large city, as in life, lines of communication are often crossed and mixed up, leading to unexpected outcomes. As one character remarks: ‘Sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right station.’ In this case, Ila makes the acquaintance of Saajan.
Saajan works in an office shifting through pay slips and navigating accounts. He has been doing so for decades past, and now he is taking early retirement. No explicit reason is given for his decision, but we can see how tired he is in the way he draws impeccable lines with his highlighter, how he sits alone in the canteen and despondently takes the lunchbox out, only to discover something different inside. His wife has died, and his home is oppressively quiet. To add salt to the wound, an annoyingly enthusiastic young man has already been employed to take his place, and Saajan is given instructions to train him during his last month in work.
What transpires, given these details, is in no way surprising. Ila and Saajan enter into a correspondence, at first timid, but which grows into something deeper and more complex. They exchange notes in the lunchboxes Ila prepares for him. It is revealing that Saajan notices and appreciates the difference in quality between the lunchboxes he usually receives and those prepared by Ila – yet her husband, who receives those intended for Saajan, barely notices anything.
The reason that ’The Lunchbox’ transcends the formulas of the genre it belongs to is because of its wisdom. There is much laughter to be found here, but director Ritesh Batra knows how sad his story is – and that is refreshing, particularly when we learn that this is his first feature-length film. I almost wish he had been braver: the movie does not need the easy, slightly clichéd laughs that we would expect from this kind of heart-warmer; the fact that he does not shrink from the darker elements in these people’s lives, and leaves the story to a degree unresolved, demonstrate his intelligence and genuine empathy for his characters. It is therefore a shame when we feel the formula click in, for it is rare in a film of this kind for the audience to feel that there really is something at stake – that if these characters act decisively, the road they take will be a difficult one. As it stands, ‘The Lunchbox’ is a charming, pleasant film, and for once, it gives the audience food for thought when the credits begin to roll. When was the last time you saw a rom-com that did that?