The Lunchbox is a truly special film. And that’s not just because it’s a vagrant display of the strength of Indian arthouse cinema, which often gets neglected against the backdrop of the larger than life glitz and glamour of the mainstream Hindi film industry.1 It is perhaps one of most subtle examinations of loneliness as a by-product of a rigid and unforgiving social structure of the contemporary Indian middle class. Therein lies its understated genius.
Director Ritesh Batra (who had previously only been associated with short films) weaves an engaging narrative around two individuals who have been unwittingly socially ostracised – Ila, the neglected housewife who tries to reignite the spark in her marriage through her cooking and Saajan Fernandez, a widowed accountant who is about to retire and solemnly diffuse into reclusive passivity. Ila’s ‘spark’, the lunchbox that was intended for her husband, reaches Saajan instead, and thus begins a tale of self-expression, as two unlikely individuals try to find solace in each other’s thoughts.
The Lunchbox is a piercing critique of the Indian middle class, a commentary on the pre-existing social structures of Indian society that breed passivity. There are repetitive shots of herds of people travelling in local trains, staring into nothingness, as if they are just existing in a drone-like state. The day, like any other day, has no special meaning. It’s just another day to get through. Saajan bereaves the absurdity of existence, to the point that it resembles a cruel Kafka-esque joke.
“When my wife died, she got a horizontal burial plot. I tried to buy a burial plot for myself the other day, what they offered me was a vertical one. I’ve spent my whole life standing in trains and buses, now I’ll have to stand even when I’m dead!”
Saajan is a man who has built a social wall around ordained structures that he religiously follows. These little structures – whether it is punctuality in the workplace or familiar reclusivity of his house have helped him cope with the death of wife, yet at the same time, his inability to break free also stops him from truly moving on. Not unlike Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, he even gets thoroughly annoyed when children from the locality playing street cricket force him to come out of his self-imposed isolation.
Ila’s lunchbox, which arrives unexpectedly and unannounced, forces him to change his structure. His work patterns are also constantly disturbed by Shaikh, the young protégé who is to take over from Saajan after he retires. Shaikh appears to be a man who has no ‘structure’. He chops vegetables on the local train to save time instead of doing the chore at home. Furthermore, he is a terrible accountant.
Ila also is a woman who has built her life around her own structures. She is a diligent housewife – she gets her daughter ready for school in time and then gets ready to cook, accompanied by the sounds of the radio and the extremely audible ‘Deshpande Aunty’ (who is only heard, never seen throughout the film).
Both the central individuals have found a comfort in their structures, which are appealing initially, but ultimately prove to be claustrophobic. Ila seeks her identity in her husband’s approval – most importantly, an approval of her structures. Saajan, on the other hand, seeks what he never had – a family, wife, kids, an atmosphere that would make his gloomy house a ‘home’. Saajan’s routine is to catch a train to and fro from work, come back home and smoke at the balcony whilst he stares with a mixture of longing and helplessness at the family that lives directly opposite his house. From the balcony, he can see the family sharing their dinner – they argue, they bicker, they converse and they eat home cooked food together. Saajan, on the other hand, lives alone and has precooked food/food from a restaurant and he has no one to talk to. This contrast is so powerful in the way that it is shown through the visual medium. He constantly looks out from his window across to the other apartment opposite him, where he can see a family sitting together and having dinner on the dining table, and the small daughter of the family waving at him, smiling.
The Lunchbox is a harrowing portrayal of the futility in searching for the ideal Indian middle class life. Both protagonists constantly crave for this illusory, socially constructed ideal. Perhaps, by achieving that ideal, they believe they would be able to fill the void within themselves that has pushed them towards a self-imposed exile. It is ultimately, a film about acceptance – not social, but of the self.
Irrfan Khan, who started his career with character driven roles on Indian television before achieving stardom in domestic and international films (such as The Namesake and Life of Pi), has given a deliciously understated performance as the widowed Saajan Fernandez. His initial encounter with Ila’s lunchbox, which he eyes with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity, sets the tone of the film. Nimrat Kaur as the housewife Ila, compliments Khan’s portrayal very well. The scenes where the exchanges between Saajan and Ila cut back and forth on screen are shot innovatively, interspersed with shots of different dishes from the Indian cuisine. Bharati Achrekar, the invisible voice of reason, ‘Deshpande Aunty’, perhaps has one of the most interesting cameos in recent memory. Nawazuddin Siddique, as Khan’s vibrant, sometimes pesky protégé Shaikh provides an interesting contrast to Khan’s understated portrayal. Their scenes together are one of the highlights of the film.
Beyond the delectable array of dishes on screen, The Lunchbox carries with it a strong and underlying commentary on Indian society. However, the film is not limited by its contextual underpinning. Its bleak assessment of the futility in searching for the ideal is a social statement which is very much a valid critique of the current human condition, not limited by geographical borders.
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