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A Burgeoning Relationship That Pivots On A 'Lunchbox'

Michael Simmonds
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Irrfan Khan as Saajan in 'The Lunchbox.'

Popular films set in India like Darjeeling Limited or Slumdog Millionaire, show India as a place to joke about. The new movie The Lunchbox, made by an Indian filmmaker, is funny and touching – but is certainly not a joke.

Compared to American movies, films from India take their time. They let situations and characters develop; they’re not goal-oriented in the way of most American mainstream pictures. If the only Indian-like film you’ve seen is Slumdog Millionaire, remember that the director of that film is English; and keep in mind that actual Indian filmmakers do not drop poor characters into vats of sewage to amuse the audience.

Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox takes place in present-day Mumbai, and it’s a marvel of textures and feeling for its place. The movie opens on two commuter trains running in opposite directions, and that’s a good beginning to describe the tumult surrounding the events of the film.

A young mother named Ila (Nimrat Kaur) sends her daughter off to school and then proceeds to cook an elaborate lunch. She gets advice from her auntie shouting instructions from the apartment above. Auntie never appears in the film, yet based on the rising smells can tell her niece how to spice the dishes she prepares. Ila arranges the lunch into those fabulous Asian stacked containers, and puts it in a pack.

Credit Michael Simmonds / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Nimrat Kaur as Ila.

The film then follows the remarkable path of the packed lunch. A man picks it up at Ila’s door and takes it to a central location where it’s loaded onto a push cart, then stowed on a train with thousands of other lunches, and finally delivered personally to the desk of the person for whom it was made. It’s a miracle of social organization, and when Ila questions the system, the delivery man at her door swears that both Harvard and the King of England personally pronounced the system flawless. This time, though, instead of going to Ila’s cold, distant and unfaithful husband, the lunch winds up with an office worker in the claims department of an insurance company.

Saajan Fernandes (Irfan Khan) is a lonely man on the verge of retirement. He returns the empty lunchbox with a note, and the correspondence that follows becomes something like love.

Nothing happens too quickly. Each day, Fernandes eyes the misdelivered lunchbox; you hear the erotic unzipping of the soft pack that contains the shiny metal containers. In the lunch room, Fernandes savors the food. He spoons it out onto a metal plate, and as the days go by he learns that inside the chapatti, the flatbread, he’ll find a note from Ila. As the mutual desire grows, the audience begins to share the hope that the two will meet, because they seem to need the care and sweetness that each might offer the other.

Whether that happens or not is not for me to reveal, but the marvel of The Lunchbox is the complexity of the place and the society where this possible relationship develops. How two human beings might find one another in Mumbai boggles the mind. So many people ride the train that Fernandes hasn’t found a seat in years. Outside shots are packed with cars, bicycles, people walking. Fernandes’ office has lines of desks, each one stacked with unruly piles of file folders and papers. Yet in this constantly moving crush of human beings, the movie presents these two characters as utterly alone. Ila talks only to her auntie through the window. Fernandes has just an over eager young assistant whom he’s to prepare to take over his job. On the train, he sits in silence as the lunch box delivery men, dressed all in white, sing together. It’s not a joyless world overall, but it is for these two people – Ila with an empty marriage and Fernandes a widower.

The Lunchbox resists the temptation to go sentimental. It refuses the quick fix and the cheap satisfaction of throwing the two together and throwing away the world they inhabit. A couple of times, characters quote an Indian saying about how one can take the wrong train but still get to the right station.

That may come to pass, but not in a hurry.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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