When I mentioned to my friend Zamir my plan to watch a movie every day this year, he promptly reminded me of our long-held promise to watch the acclaimed 2013 Indian film The Lunchbox together. A few messages back and forth later and suddenly he is on a train, heading across town with a container of his mum’s fantastic biriyani in hand, and since we hadn’t actually seen each other in person in at least four years, this was both a shock and a delight, and makes me already grateful to have made this particular resolution.
After several hours of catching up, we finally settled down to watch this simple yet complex, sweet yet poignant, depressing yet uplifting gem of a film. Irrfan Khan plays the reclusive, widowed curmudgeon Saajan, who is about to take early retirement from his office job and doesn’t seem happy about it. Or anything, really. But then one day he receives the wrong lunch, this one lovingly prepared by the beautiful and unhappily married Ily (Nimrat Kaur) instead of the restaurant he usually receives it from. This begins a correspondence both intimate and anonymous, as these two forthright but uncertain souls – so different in so many ways – find common ground, and, above anything, hope in each other.
Comedic elements in the film are supplied mostly by Saajan’s eager new apprentice, Shaikh (a very engaging Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Ily’s voice-only upstairs neighbour Auntie, who dispenses marital advice, cooking tips and spices while caring for her bedridden husband. There is a lot of local flavour, as the lunch delivery service – the dabbawalla system – is celebrated in all its chaotic complexity, with legions of lunches being collected from homes all over the huge and sprawling metropolis that is Mumbai and taken by bicycle, cart and train into the city’s packed offices. At one point in the film, Ily tells her delivery man that her lunch is going to the wrong place, and he refuses to believe such a mistake can possibly have happened. People from Harvard, he says, came and observed its flawlessness, after all. I did some research, and yes, not only is this system held as the gold standard by most authorities, it is theorized that the reason this film was not chosen by the Film Federation of India as the nation’s official submission to the Academy Awards that year was because it dared to call into question the infallibility of the dabbawallas.
Both Kahn and Kaur are fantastic here, each of them expressing their loneliness with few words—its mostly in their eyes, their sighs, their silence. The change in them, as their penpal-based acquaintanceship/romance develops, is subtle but visceral, and the while of course, no film of this nature is going to wrap things up for us in a neat, pretty bow, when it ended I had a smile on my face, and Zamir and I spent a very happy half hour essentially writing verbal fanfic, as we speculated on what would happen next.
In all, a lovely film, a lovely experience, and lovely company with whom to enjoy it.
And lovely biriyani, too.
Written by: Ritesh Batra
Directed by: Ritesh Batra
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bharti Achrekar, Nakul Vaid
WHERE I WATCHED IT: Starz.