Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
After reading a glowing review of the film The Lunchbox on Saturday, my husband and I were lucky to have his parents staying with us and they promptly offered to babysit so that we could see it together. I enjoyed the film from start to end. The Lunchbox is a story about a connection that blossoms from a mistaken food delivery and it won the Critics’ Choice Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. It is slow, thought provoking and laden with emotion while remaining understated. In the fine tradition of French films, long scenes stretched without dialogue but were amply carried by the acting ability of the main stars Nimrat Kaur as Ila and Irrfan Khan as Saajan Fernandez.
Ila is a lonely and unloved housewife who tries to fix her marriage with her fabulous cooking. Ila’s husband barely notices her and in a lovely feature of the film, Ila receives cooking advice from an unseen upstairs ‘Aunty’ who sends ingredients down to Ila to perfect her dishes. She says that with this dish her husband will build her a Taj Mahal. The lunchbox is picked up by a dabbawallah and delivered across the city by chance to someone other than her husband. Saajan is a bored, lifeless, widowed office clerk who has worked for the same company for 35 years. He lacks connections in his life or verve for anything. Ila’s cooking brings life back into Saajan and he is able to make a connection with his replacement, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) as a result. Ila realises that her husband did not eat her lovingly cooked meal and sends a short note to Saajan. He writes a short note in response and so begins an increasingly intimate exchange of letters through the tiffins.
The director (Ritesh Batra) studied economics at Drake University in the USA, then worked as a consultant for Deloitte. His initial idea was to make a film about Mumbai’s 5,000 lunchbox delivery men, the dabbawallahs. Batra embedded himself with the dabbawallahs in 2007, with an idea of finding a personal story among them. He was surprised by how much they knew about the people they deliver food for everyday. Often illiterate and without IT systems, Mumbai’s dabbawallahs run arguably India’s most efficient and trusted business. Every working day, for more than 125 years, they have transported hundreds of thousands of tiffin lunches back and forth from home kitchens and restaurants to office workers in the world’s fourth most densely populated city. Harvard Business School commissioned a six-month study into the service in 2010 that worked out that only one in a million deliveries goes to the wrong recipient. Batra’s film is about that one in a million delivery and the scenes that followed the dabbawallahs were fascinating.
I was keen to discuss the film with an Indian colleague (who studied in Mumbai and loves blockbusters and CGI) but he dismissed the film as boring, saying that if a film receives an award it will do poorly in India because people want to escape through watching films, not be reminded of the drudgery of real life. I have a comfortable and enriching life so maybe that’s why I seek books and films that explore emotions and difficult topics over blockbusters. The film is apparently doing well in India, much to the surprise of Batra:
I didn’t expect the reaction it got in India and how much it resonated. But it’s a good sign that home audiences are changing – people want to see their stories on screen. My parents were worried for me when I showed it to them. My mum couldn’t understand why I hadn’t included any songs.