THE LUNCHBOX. Starring Irrfan Khan. Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, directed by Ritesh Batra. Rated PG (Mild Themes). 103 minutes.
The Lunchbox has proven a success not only in India but the world over. The growing interest in films about India is to advantage here.
With the opening of the film, the audience is immersed immediately into the life and vitality of the city of Mumbai. As with the title of the film, the audience becomes interested in the thousands of men who walk, pull carts, ride on bikes, our passengers on vehicles delivering hundreds of thousands of lunch lunchboxes all over the city. One immediate query is how do the lunchboxes get to the right place at the right time – something which is explained at the end of the film, some of the carriers becoming rather indignant even at the suggestion that a lunchbox should not arrive at its proper destination.
We are also shown to different parts of the city whether the two leads live. One is a quite comfortable, but fairly cramped, home where Ila, an ordinary housewife, lives with her husband and daughter. She gets her daughter ready for school, a touch pessimistic in her outlook, that rain will come at any time, that accidents can happen. She spends time at home preparing her husband's lunch for his lunchbox. An old lady lives upstairs, whom she calls Auntie, who calls down conversation and cooking advice. In another part of the city, an accountant, Saajan, lives by himself, a widower, who for 35 years has been going to do the same kind of accounting work and comes home to a lonely house, standing on the veranda watching the neighbours have a happy family meal, and smoking.
This not might not seem the ingredients for a popular film. And audiences with a touch of impatience will need to get their impulse for hurry under some control – this is a very leisurely paced film.
At work, Saajan is about to take early retirement and is asked to help in the training of an eager, very eager, irritatingly eager, young man, Shaikh. Shaikh is not particularly reliable but, quite soon, he wins over Saajan with his sometimes desperate respect. But that is not the main thrust of the story. That is, of course, the lunchbox.
As the advertising suggests, Saajan receives the wrong lunchbox, one especially packed by Ila for her husband. Saajan finds the meal delightful and appetising, and continues to receive the meals, thinking they are from the local shop. 1t is Ila's neglectful husband, who generally ignores her, who makes her realise that the lunchbox has been going to the wrong destination. She encloses a note, to the interest and delight of Saajan, his immediate reply being rather functional, about salt in the meal. Then the correspondence continues, the two never meeting, communicating through the notes day by day, learning a lot about each other, opening up a great deal about themselves and their situations.
As Shaikh note, correspondence by letters seems very much out of date in the age of email. The film is, one might say, a cinematic love letter, to letters.
That is basically what the film is and is about. There is a delightful wedding sequence, Saajan going to Shaikh's wedding, the only representative of his side of the family raise while his wife's family is there – in abundance. And there is a sad death sequence, Ila receiving news from her mother that her father has died.
Which means that the film is about basic values, the quality of human life, possibilities for happiness, the realities of sadness and some betrayal, the basic sadness in the deep experiences of long illness, death, and the delight in the celebration of marriage and wedding.
This is a film which reaches into the hearts of an older audience – one hopes that a younger audience might stray into the film, slow their pace down, and contemplate some of the deeper values of life, even through communication in a lunchbox.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out July 10, 2014.