“The Lunchbox” Movie Review
At the same time our lives unfold in repetitive patterns of routine (morning commutes, prepping our children for school, eyeing the clock to leave work, sitting down to dinner, an in between, the hallowed break for lunch), they are also occupied by major happenings to which we devote our physical and mental energies (transitions in work, the decline of elderly parents, serious reflection on our stations). “The Lunchbox” is a story prompted by an unpredictable intersection of these two realms. When Mumbai’s lunchtime delivery service begins depositing Ila’s (Nimrat Kaur) finely-prepared meals to not her husband, but Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a friendship is born through notes tucked away in the eponymous satchel. That these messages are written and folded for privacy on white lined paper, instead of exchanged through one of the many ubiquitous modern electronic communication channels, is fronted by the film. Personalization should be cherished; feelings seem more authentic, closer to the soul, in printed form.
This is only one of many small devices in a film saturated by rituals that key into our humanity, if only the key fits. Ila and Saajan are both tempered by lives detached from what formerly grounded them (Saajan is nearing retirement, Ila has become an afterthought to her husband). Far from distraught, they are instead resigned; they are equally alone, but not abandoned. “The Lunchbox” opens to overhead shots of a train system, then the crowded bustle of the city, then the journey of the lunchboxes. We are linked at all times by various networks, and when similar poles attach—then a spark.
But “The Lunchbox” is interested in much more than a nascent romance. The correspondence between Saajan and Ila allows them to look upon their own lives with fresh eyes. They counsel, they wax poetic, they reprimand (in one note, Ila instructs Saajan that “every cigarette takes 5 minutes off your life”); then, each turns around and tests a new behavior. The greatest takeaway of “The Lunchbox” is this awareness—new, exciting events in our lives may stoke attitudes and perceptions that were formerly dormant or ignored. Saajan takes a moment to consider how he reacts to pesky neighborhood children. Ila sits with her daughter to share stories about games she played when she was a child. Compounded, our small, thoughtless decisions are far from negligible; they are who we are. If actions speak louder than words, even the slightest action may echo.
While Saajan’s intrigue with his lunch morphs into giddy anticipation, he must also deal with another new acquaintance, this one his annoying foil. Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is the young go-getter set to replace Saajan after his departure, with one of those eager smiles that could either be from genuine excitement or schmaltzy conceit. Shaikh and Saajan do not get on with ease, but it is clear neither man expects admiration, only understanding. As we watch these men break bread, tussle, and commiserate, we discover another subtle truism of “The Lunchbox”: we can only know ourselves through those around us. When Ila must confront her husband about something important, she is quick to recognize she does not have the courage, though confrontation seems at first to be her only option.
“The Lunchbox” is deceptively simple because it clues us into the complexity of the mundane. “Quaint” would be an easy way to describe (at least the first half of) this film, but for the mounting pressures that coalesce onto each character. Its triumph rests with its actors, and Ritesh Batra lets their expressions guide his camera in a fluid, graceful way. In a few instances, he stays on a character’s face for what may seem like 2 or 3 seconds too long, but just enough for the audience to settle into their thoughts itself. Mr. Khan keeps masterly composure of his character, and often uses ambiguity to advance himself. Ms. Kaur is not as suggestive, but still plays veiled despair with wrenching effect. At the moments she may burst, she also conveys dignified restraint.
They are a joy to watch, and bolstered by a superior screenplay. There is plenty to contemplate in this film. Ila’s closest confidante is her Auntie, conveniently located in the flat above to be able to talk to through the window, but interestingly is never seen. Ila’s husband, emotionally distant from the start, is phased out of the film early by positioning and lighting. There is plenty else that provides for post-viewing discussion, and I would delighted to spoil all the surprises for you in this review. But I’ll stop here by also saying “The Lunchbox” is also at times bracingly funny, adding to the lightness of a film that dabbles with grave subjects.
“The Lunchbox” is that rare type of film that feels natural, all the more impressive because each element is important and none is superfluous. It feels like life itself. Each minute, each person, each event; none of these exist in a vacuum. Some things we can plan, some things we cannot, but we stay along for the ride. “Sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right station”, repeated at different points in the film, may be its thesis, or it may not; it probably depends on which train you find yourself on.