Ritesh Batra’s ‘The Lunchbox’ simmers just right for a delightful experience, and it’s the superlative script and the low-key performances that make this film a total win. This film regards high the impressive working system of the Mumbai ‘dabbahwallas’ (lunchbox delivery men), who deliver lunchboxes prepared by dutiful wives to their respective husbands’ office. The frame where the white-capped army of dabbahwallahs goes wheeling and running in sun-rain-cold on the Mumbaiya lanes is Whoa! A cheeky dabbahwala refers during the movie about their working system being a study topic at Harvard University, which concluded that the probability of a lunchbox going amiss is just one in six million. The Lunchbox is about such a one-in-millions goof up.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a wife and mother whose marriage has lost its honeymoon-phase sheen and has dwelled into the ‘routine and unsatisfying’, so in order to reignite the magic in their marital union, she prepares a new recipe for hubby dearest with her neighbor Deshpande Aunty’s (Bharati Achrekar’s) help, and hands the lunchbox over to the delivery service. A delivery error results in the lunchbox warming the desk of the misanthrope Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan), a lonely government number cruncher set to retire in the following month. For Ila and Saajan, this error proves opportune, and they start interacting by slipping notes in the compartment of the dabba (Nothing can be more romantic than exchanging hand-writ notes, ever!). Ila jovially resumes with her error, and cooks delightful curries for Saajan, in whom she confides all about her failing marriage. In a parallel subplot is the smooth-tongued and over-zealous accountant trainee Aslam Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who is to replace Saajan in the office. One to receive no lunchbox, Aslam kills his hunger by gorging on cheap bananas, but that doesn’t hamper his jolliness and courage. He’s a self-made man, and he plays a huge part in rippling Saajan’s lonesome, miserable waters.
While the first half takes the somewhat expected path, it’s the second half that defines the ‘exceptional’ in The Lunchbox. Though this may not be much about the appetite of love, it’s the complex essence of relationships that get splashed all over the plate. The central characters are simply riveting in their renditions, and have heavily induced the ‘local flavor’ in their rich performances.
Irrfan Khan invests a lot in his expressions and body language. His ‘loner’s sadness’ just drips in the frame when he’s smoking alone in the balcony, observing a nearby chirpy family all eating together. Top form acting! There’s a lot he conveys with the slightest smile and a modest eyebrow twitch throughout the film, and the cheerful conversations between him and Nawaaz are wonderfully humorous. The way Aslam melts Saajan’s icy, Scrooge-like aura ticks the heart. As for Nawazzuddin, he realizes the everyday local train commuter naturally as he seats down cutting dinner vegetables on his office file. Nimrat Kaur channelizes her sadness and unsureness extremely well. She has a multi-layered role, and she’s lived up to the excellence set by the other two seasoned actors. Lilette Dubey shines as Ila’s mother, and there’s a frame with her husband’s funeral possession where she expresses her desires of having paraanthaas. That’s how deeply food is veined into the script here. Bharti Achrekar could only be experienced as a voice, but even that few parts where she employs her power of speech is wonderful. With acting shining gold all the way, and the script pulling the strings of your heart in every single setting, the movie never dulls down one bit in its entire duration.
This low-key performance by the three leads adds to the subtlety and maturity of the film. The supporting characters show immense insight, and their humor portions are well scripted. For a debut, Batra’s film is far more graceful than what’s suggested in the premise. With the soul of the script placed right, the film comes off as semi-poetic and contemplates in-depth over relationships. It just doesn’t pave way for the conventionally easy end. Direction is good, and the detailing and the little observations that have found their way in the camera’s scope are praiseworthy. Cinematography is another of the many technical wins, with the daily middle class fight beautifully sketched out in the locales of Mumbai. Food and Mumbai come across as prominent elements here, accentuating and beautifying the visuals every now and then. Music is good, and the dabbahwalahs team up to croon their dabba-anthem quite often in the film, adding more authenticity to the story.
The Lunchbox is an affluent asset to Indian Cinema immensely satiating the cinemagoer’s hunger, and we seriously hope that what started off with the Cannes aroma, ends in an Oscar aftertaste.
Overall Rating: 5/5 (Because it deserves nothing less.)