The Lunchbox: Review

The Lunchbox: Review

The Lunchbox: Review. By Joe Muldoon.

A good friend of mine once shared with me a poem of hers in which a family communicates through food, a full stomach signifying their love. I’ve held a great fondness for the piece ever since she first shared it with me, and –excuse the pun– it provided me with fertile food for thought. Language needn’t solely be a matter of pen-to-paper; why resign language purely to verbal correspondence when we have the ability to communicate and supplement our feelings through other mediums? In director Ritesh Batra’s breakthrough feature The Lunchbox, this is precisely the case.

Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young Mumbaikar, is a housewife stuck with a mostly-incommunicative partner. Every day, she seeks guidance from her beloved upstairs neighbour (who she affectionately calls ‘auntie’), and cooks mouthwatering meals for her husband in the hopes that he will get the message and reciprocate her love. Saajan Fernandes (played by the magnificent late Irrfan Khan) is a widowed accountant nearing retirement after 35 years of working in his current role.

Saajan is a subscriber to the famous Mumbai dabbawala service, a loaded tiffin being personally delivered to his work desk daily. One fateful lunchtime, he notices the sudden change in food quality, the typically decent offerings miraculously becoming exquisite. A stroke of luck for the accountant, another man’s meal has mistakenly been sent to him – namely, that of Ila’s husband. And so is forged the unlikely connection between the widower and housewife, the two corresponding through food and a series of handwritten notes left in the box, their lives bound by a simple aluminium tiffin. Their friendship blossoms gradually, each meal and accompanying note bringing them closer together, helping them to come to terms with their respective personal lives and tribulations.

Batra’s writing is artfully subtle and beautifully delicate; rather than strong-arming any romanticism between the co-leads, he instead opts to develop their relationship at a leisurely pace. Despite their physical separation, we never feel as though the pair are ever truly apart – the soul of their bond resides within the food and notes they share with one another.

The unwavering chaos of inner city life is captured well, the overcrowded buses, trains, and streets offering nothing but loneliness and interpersonal disconnect. To this end, I think that the picture shares somewhat of a spiritual kinship with the films of Taiwanese filmmakers Tsai Ming-liang and Edward Yang, the isolation felt by the characters only intensifying with the bustling busyness of metropolitan existence.

Upon its 2013 release, The Lunchbox was met with widespread critical acclaim, enjoying a very warm reception across the festival scene, including a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival. To craft an onscreen relationship is a difficult task in itself, but to do so with the characters never interacting in-person is an incredibly impressive feat. Batra manages to bring two people together through their loneliness, the contradictory nature of this showing the strength of his writing. It’s a great pity that his filmography currently remains so small.

Where others would be perhaps tempted to infuse within the story some melodramatic licks, Batra resists the urge. He empathetically gives a voice to the dissatisfied correspondents, not by leading them to fall into one another’s arms in a loving embrace, but by offering them what they quietly yearn for: understanding and friendship. A fantastic fusion of the culinary and epistolary, The Lunchbox is a reminder to us that love assumes many forms, and can be expressed in many ways. Even something so simple as a curry and unleavened flatbread.

By Joe Muldoon

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