The Lunchbox (Dabba)
India (2013) Dir. Ritesh Batra
For me, the greatest gift World Cinema gives us is the opportunity to look directly into a culture that would otherwise remain unknown to us, or distorted through mainstream and presuming eyes. This charming Indian film does exactly that.
Set in Mumbai, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a young housewife to aloof Rajiv (Nakul Vaid) and mother to Yashvi (Yashvi Puneet Nagar). Every day Ila sends a lovingly made lunch to Rajiv at his office via the “dabbawalas” delivery service, known for its amazing reliability. However on one occasion a mistake is made and Rajiv’s lunch ends up in being delivered to lonely widower accountant Saajan (Irrfan Khan), who enjoys the food nonetheless.
When Ila gets the empty lunchbox back she is thrilled the food has been eaten but Rajiv merely shrugs, praising the cauliflower – something she didn’t cook! Realising the error, Ila sends a note with the next lunch thanking whomever for eating it all. Luckily it goes to Saajan again who replies by complaining that the second meal was too salty. Ila responds by sending Saajan an extra spicy meal the next day and his lesson is learned. From then on a relationship is formed via the daily letters.
Borrowing from the same gene pool as legendary tales of innocent meetings blossoming into something more, namely Brief Encounter or 84 Charing Cross Road, writer-director Ritesh Batra does more than borrow from the classics. There is an overt tip of the hat to the pre-technological age to be found here, a tacit critique on our overreliance on modern conveniences like e-mail, text, smartphones, social media, etc. when good old paper and pen proves to be the most reliable form of communication.
This appears to be a recurring motif – analogue TVs are still being watched, boxes, video players are still in use, and not a mobile phone or computer can be seen, not even in Saajan’s office, where everything is still done on paper! Aside from the odd reference to e-mail and mp3 this is as old school as you can get, and that plays a significant part in the unhurried charm of the film.
Ila and Saajan have much in common before they even meet – Ila is stuck at home and trapped in a loveless marriage, Saajan coming to the end of his employment while holding on to the memories of late wife, which prevent him to show even the simplest courtesy to other people.
Case in point is Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), Saajan’s replacement who he is supposed to train. Saajan puts Shaikh off, who takes the rebuttals with a smile until he has enough one day and snaps at his senior. Coupled with Ila’s continuing messages of her fraught life, Saajan gradually mellows around Shaikh.
At the same time, Ila is becoming more frustrated with Rajiv’s coldness and the ailing health of her father. Her only outlet of happiness is the replies from Saajan, who becomes her only confidante, as she becomes his. I would be remiss however if I didn’t mention Ila’s auntie (Bharati Achrekar), who is only heard and not seen. She lives upstairs with her comatose husband and offers advice, food recipes, and even ingredients via a basket on a rope, in a set-up which feels like a skit from The Kumars.
Arguably the unsung star of this tale is the “dabbawalas” delivery service. To explain how it works, a restaurant or housewife makes the lunch, puts them into a stack of connecting metal tins called a Dabba then pops into an insulated bag. They are picked up by a bicycle courier who takes them to a pick-up point where they are driven to the train station. They travel by rail to the next destination, where they are picked up by another courier who takes to the workplace, where designated staff finally deliver them just in time for lunch!
This remarkable service has been studied by Harvard professors who can vouch for its genius and accuracy, but the most admirable aspect about it is how it relies not one jot on modern technology beyond the motorised vehicle and gets the job done every time – except not in this case of course. But surely that is a major plot hole? Ila has to rely on her lunch being incorrectly delivered on a daily basis in order to stay in contact with Saajan, thus the service has to routinely fail from now on!
But as with all fiction some requirement of leeway is expected and we grant it in this case otherwise we’d be denied such a heart-warming and quietly emotive tale. Entrusted with making us believe in the fate of our foodie friends is veteran Irrfan Khan, a surly looking chap who eventually morphs into a reformed avuncular role through this experience. Nimrat Kaur is deliberately glammed down in order to play frowsy housewife Ila but still radiates with an honest and earthy sense of pathos and strength as hope and happiness seem to pass her by.
The film is superbly shot and Batra has a keen eye for shot composition. One standout scene shows Ila trying to converse with Rajiv; she is standing with her back to the camera but her reflection in a full-length mirror shows her talking directly to Rajiv. Yet the frame of the mirror and the angle we see Ila at is a demoralising metaphor to illustrate the divide that has come between the couple even in such close proximity.
I will freely admit that Bollywood is not to my tastes, and the pious leanings used to depict Indians in western programming (like Eastenders) is immensely off putting to me. So I am glad to say that The Lunchbox is an utterly joyous film eschewing these facets and should be considered an antidote to such stereotypes, and hopefully an indicator of the quality product modern Indian cinema will deliver in the future.