In Mumbai, a lunchbox accidentally delivered to the wrong person leads to a romance by correspondence between two lonely people. Directed by Ritesh Batria, it stars the late Irrfan Khan.
Eat, Drink, Man, Woman by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
This is a film for which the word ‘charming’ seems to have been invented – and here, that works. First-time director and screenwriter Ritesh Batria’s Mumbai is a busy working city crowded with humanity, crammed in transit on trains and bicycles, in buses and taxis. In this relentless hustle and bustle, a wistful love story emerges between two of Mumbai’s teeming millions. Mumbai’s office workers are fuelled at lunchtime by a fleet of dabawallahs who deliver their lunches (cooked food in metal tiffin containers) to them in their offices, either prepared by their wives at home or, if single, by a takeaway cooking company, using a system of legendary accuracy that has been studied by academics, in which an error has been proved mathematically to be almost impossible. Except that this time something does go wrong with a delivery and the mistake brings two lonely people together.
We first see lonely widower Saajan (a sensitive performance, both gruff and compassionate from Irrfan Khan, of Life Of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire, and winner of two awards for this role) squashed in the rush hour on his way to work in the government insurance office where he has worked for 35 years. He muses wryly to himself that when he tried to buy a burial plot “what they offered me was a vertical one… I’ve spent my whole life standing in trains and buses… now I’ll even have to stand when I’m dead!”. Meanwhile, in another suburb, unhappy young housewife Ila (appealing newcomer Nimrat Kaur) believes her neglectful husband is having an affair and she cooks a special lunch for him to win back his attention, with the advice, and spices –“this recipe will do it for you!” – of her elderly neighbour in the flat upstairs, Auntie (veteran Bharati Achrekar, a famous actress and sitcom star), a disembodied voice floating in through the kitchen window that we never see.
Her lunchbox is collected by the dabawallah as usual, but this time is somehow delivered in error to Saajan (Irrfan Khan). He appreciates the improvement in the cuisine and when the lunchbox is to be returned, he puts a little note inside. Ila’s husband is so indifferent that he doesn’t realise that he too received the wrong lunchbox from somewhere, so next day, Ila replies to the note she found and puts her own note in the lunchbox – which again is mistakenly delivered to Saajan. Slowly, a tender relationship develops between the two lonely people as they tell each other the thoughts and hopes they have no one else to confide in – otherwise “we forget things if we have no one to tell them to” – the letters are read as voiceovers – and as Ila starts to cook Saajan’s favourite dishes.
Saajan is approaching retirement and has a bothersome, overly eager young assistant Shaikh (Bollywood actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who won two best supporting actor awards for this) that he is supposed to be training as his replacement. He is avoiding doing so, perhaps because he hasn’t come to terms with having to retire with no ‘golden years’ and just solitary ready meals, to look forward to. Shaikh is thrilled to have a job at last, but hard up. By pestering Saajan about work during his lunch break, he inveigles himself into a share of the delicious lunches he receives and, despite himelf, Saajan overcomes his hostility and warms towards him. Anxious to ingratiate himself, Shaikh invites Saajan to eat with him and his beautiful wife to be. Reluctant but unable to refuse, Saajan ends up being won over by their genuine concern for him, discovering that they are marrying for love against her parents’ wishes and ends up being guest of honour at their wedding. But this, and the fact that he is now starting to be offered a seat on the train in the morning, makes Saajan realise how he is excluded from life’s feast and also that there is no disguising that he is getting old.
Although they have never met, the two unhappy people, Saajan and Ila, gradually form a plan of running away to live in Bhutan, where Ila believes “gross national happiness” is higher. “Sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right station” is their rationale, and that’s also the film’s premise – the serendipity of love. But first you have to have the courage to get on the train. Ila waits to meet Saajan for the first time in a restaurant but though he watches her from outside, he feels he’s too old for her and can’t go in. Ila finds out where he works, but when she goes there, she discovers he has left – finally retired. Two people are searching for each other among the millions. Perhaps they may still meet one day.
The Lunchbox has a wonderful sense of place and real life going on – the city, the trains, the tedious offices, the suburban flat. It’s full of humour and humanity: it shows people experiencing sadness and being capable of kindness, their interconnectedness and the pain of not being part of it. Heartwarming without being overly sentimental, it shows how love can grow in unlikely places and the sorrow of not allowing yourself to recognise it. It is a perfectly self-contained, though slight, low-key small film, with poignant intersecting stories that fit together like the dabawallahs crisscrossing the city or the interlocking containers of a metal tiffin.