Years clock the distance that you have covered, stranger. Time falls off you like the peeling plastic sheath of a newly purchased gadget. Gone are the days of youth and impulsive mirth; the present exacts a terribly dulling penance for past joys. You wear your city like a shield, and use your routine like a talisman to ward off the danger of straying into potentially illicit snares.
This movie is for you. You, who are the accursed watchman at the gates of nostalgia. You, who travel wearily along the barren mazes of a clockwork life, and take great care never to look back, afraid that re-visiting the pleasant rendezvous of the days gone by will bring you great pain.
Be brave. Look back. Set forth on that journey of reminiscence.
The Lunchbox is less of a movie and more of a poetic sojourn into the comforting familiarity of remembrance. Every frame is seeped with a sense of nostalgia - not only for the past, but also for the present. For the film might lead you to look back at your present from an imagined point in the future, and to find that this self-imposed anamnesis will still be tinged with aching sadness.
Ila (Namrit Kaur) is the young wife to an increasingly distant husband. Her routine involves waking up, getting her little girl ready for school, packing her husband's lunch, washing clothes, and then waiting for her family to come home. Hers is the life of a typical home-maker in middle-class India. Huge expanses of waiting are punctuated with brief moments of companionship. Her adventures occur in the kitchen, when she tries new recipes, or chats with her neighbour who lives upstairs.
She cooks with the effortless elegance of the housewife, one who is assuredly the empress of her kitchen. Blackened pots and pressure cookers are her trusted allies. She cooks to engage her husband's attention, to remind him that she is the anchor in his life of corporate competitiveness and desperate ambition. She cooks to keep hope alive and to bring back lost love. But her husband remains unresponsive, and keeps sending back her carefully prepared lunches - half-eaten in the hands of the dabbawallah.
And then, Mumbai intervenes. The city, powered by the ineffable sorcery of fate, will always nourish and encourage seemingly impossible dreams. Due to a mistake made by the Mumbai dabbawallahs (a highly unlikely occurrence, as various characters affirm in the course of the movie), the lunch that Ila packs for her husband is instead delivered to an older widower called Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan).
Saajan Fernandes is a government employee. He counters the gaping loneliness of his life by immersing himself into a routine that deadens any intensity of emotion that he might occasionally succumb to. His is the life of drab and dreary monotony. Having worked in the same firm for 35 years, he is poised on the brink of retirement, and has to train the new employee, Aslam Shiekh (Nawazuddin Siddique), who's going to replace him.
When Saajan receives the misplaced lunchbox, he's visibly perplexed. His impassive demeanour is shaken, and the home-cooked food (a thrilling departure from the tasteless fare that his neighbourhood restaurant keeps sending him) brightens his day. Finally, Ila finds an interested admirer (and critique). Finally, there's a glimmer of hope.
The two start corresponding through letters that are packed into the lunchbox along with the food. Haltingly and demurely, love starts to weave its yarn, its tapestry bolstered and held together by the tanginess of chillies and lemons, the creamy indulgence of paneer, and the smoky splendour of stuffed aubergines.
Ritesh Batra is as polished a film-maker as he is a nuanced script writer. It is evident that the Lunchbox is a movie that has been made with staggering amounts of affection for the art of cinema. The cinematography is wonderfully orchestrated, and the camera plays on Mumbai like the city were a stringed musical instrument.
The film is hauntingly simple in its premise. The lead actors could easily get lost in a crowd. The story has been done to death. But in spite of it all, the film succeeds in tugging at heartstrings that you never even knew existed, it invokes emotions that you cannot define, and it goes beyond what the director puts in the frames. THAT is what cinema is supposed to be.
Irrfan Khan is mesmerising as Saajan Fernandes. His performance is almost meditative in nature, and shows us a man who is revelling in his craft as an actor. He imbibes his character with a quite charisma that is supremely adorable.
Namrit Kaur is such a revelation! Rarely do we come across an actress who is so comfortable and confident in front of the camera. We could sing paeans to her eyes, but that would be creepy. So, we'll refrain.
Nawazuddin Siddique plays the oafish Aslam with panache. He relentlessly forwards the narrative in a film where the lead characters chose to emote so much through so less.
The Lunchbox is the sincerest movie that this reviewer has watched in a long time. If we praise it any more, we'll be overdoing it. And that will be ironical, since the movie is so sparse and yet so spectacular. Sod it, we did it anyways.