Literally speaking, this lunchbox has no meat. Moreover, its masala mix is markedly understated. But no worries, it offers much that you can dig your teeth into.
Pasanda is mentioned a couple of times and keema pav is alluded to on a solitary occasion. But, in keeping with the norm of Mumbai’s dabba delivery biz, neither finds its way into the diurnal meal at the centre of writer-director Ritesh Batra’s felicitous feature debut.
It’s veggies all the way – okra, aubergine, cauliflower and apple gourd are the ingredients of choice. But the film’s mistress of spices, a neglected Malad housewife, works such magic with her ladle that she soon has a stranger, an enervated Bandra accountant, eating out of her hands.
This quirky plot device hinges on a freak occurrence – a dabbawala delivers a lunchbox to the wrong address and sparks an unlikely romance.
But nothing else in Batra’s remarkable film is fuelled by happenstance. It is a unique piece of cinema crafted with great dexterity and attention to detail.
A strikingly original, idiosyncratic and charming love story, The Lunchbox dismantles the established structures of the genre in ways that are at once startling and effective.
An immaculate screenplay provides the sturdy under-wiring on which Batra constructs his subtle drama about lonely souls in a teeming metropolis seeking to connect with each other across a vast divide.
Besides the amazing quality of its craft, what props up The Lunchbox is a troika of splendid performances by Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur and Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
The film is a compelling study of despair and loneliness on the one hand and unrequited love and unrealized dreams on the other.
But it is also about loss and memory, and about missed opportunities and intimations of redemption.
At its heart are emotionally fettered individuals grapple with their ingrained fears and doubts even as they seek solace in the little joys of life that could set them free.
The Lunchbox is set in contemporary Mumbai, but Batra’s sharply delineated characters are enchantingly old world. They reach out to each other through scribbled notes in an era of electronic, mobile messages and social media.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur), egged on by an elderly neighbour who we only hear but never see (voice of Bharti Achrekar), seeks to use her culinary skills to wrest the attention of her distracted husband, Rajiv (Nakul Vaid).
The lunchbox she prepares reaches the wrong man. The recipient is a weary government employee, Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a widower on the verge of superannuation, a man who appears to have been shortchanged by fate.
Realising by the evening that her lunchbox has gone amiss, Ila sends Saajan a note the next day, thanking him for doing justice to her dishes. The latter sends a reply dripping with characteristic coldness.
But soon enough, the notes become longer, more intimate and unabashedly revelatory of their inner selves.
Saajan rues the fact that he did not devote more time to his now-deceased wife and join her to watch her favourite Sunday morning television shows; Ila reveals that her hubby might be having an extra-marital affair.
The character of the reticent, fastidious Saajan is contrasted with that of Dongri resident Aslam Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a garrulous and carefree understudy who has been brought in to replace the veteran.
The latter, a hardened Mumbaikar, has learnt to take life’s blows on the chin. So, when Saajan wards off his repeated attempts to make friends with him, he perseveres until the senior gives in.
What we see on the screen is bewitching; what we don’t is no less so. Even the absent or rarely seen characters cast their own, if only fleeting, spells.
Yes, they all come alive for the audience: the comatose Mr Deshpande who spends all his waking hours staring at the ceiling fan in the apartment above Ila’s; Saajan’s unnamed wife who would record Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi episodes for repeated viewings; Shaikh’s non-existent ammi who strays into his cheerful conversations; Ila’s mother (Lillete Dubey) who has spent the last few years nursing an ailing husband; and of course, the worldly wise, ever helpful Deshpande auntie.
Every ‘curry’ that The Lunchbox rustles up is redolent of magic (both cinematic and culinary) of a transformative kind.
It isn’t just the life of the male protagonist that it touches. It spills out of the screen and seeps deep into the viewer’s soul with the kind of all-encompassing force that is rarely encountered in a Mumbai film.
Keenly observed rituals of daily existence in a metropolis provide substance to this simple, unpretentious, heart-warming tale.
In essence, The Lunchbox is a nostalgic ode to the Mumbai of yore. It is peopled by characters that still yearn for Doordarshan’s early serials and sitcoms and the unalloyed sentimentality of 1980s and 1990s Hindi film songs.
Besides Saajan’s drab and functional office space and Ila’s modest middle-class home, the film plays out in crowded trains and buses, and occasionally in auto-rickshaws.
On their trips back and forth from their workplace, Saajan and Shaikh are hemmed in by fellow passengers, yet they always seem to stand apart from the crowd. They are both ‘outsiders’ at odds with the big city and yet an essential part of it.
Mishaps and miracles occur here every day and nothing represents the dynamics of Mumbai quite as eloquently as the 5000-odd dabbawalas who unfailingly feed millions of office-goers in the metropolitan maze.
Batra captures that spirit with an unfailing and unsentimental eye, and gives the real-life dabbawalas and their songs a central place in the screenplay. The three central performances are terrific, with Irrfan and Nawazuddin striking up a duet that is absolutely spectacular.
Nimrat Kaur is clearly a bundle of natural talent that Hindi cinema will do well do draw upon whenever a role demands more than just eye-candy appeal.
Gorge into it and savour its lingering aftertaste. The Lunchbox holds riches that aren’t likely to be forgotten in a hurry.