By Prithvijeet Sinha
When we look at Bombay or even attempt to make sense of its overall character, an image seems appear beyond the ‘City of Dreams’ moniker so affixed with impractical clichés.
Fast paced. Unstoppable. Soulless. Never stopping to look over the shoulder. Where it’s easy to fit in only in contained individuality. Where the idea of a ‘collective’ is sketchy at best even though half of the city teems with people in each corner, like on the overcrowded BEST buses and most importantly local trains. A city where humanity swings by with the ticking of the clock of life. Survival being the key and sometimes only true definitive. So how does the city afford us some relief, before an overwhelming day is rounded out with a sleep and restless breaths anticipate the next day marked by the same hustle and bustle?
With The Lunchbox (2013), director Ritesh Batra designed an utterly realistic counterpoint to all of the above with a touch of class, operating within the paradigm of Maximum City/metropolis always on its tenterhooks yet rediscovering (and in turn making us marvel at) the hidden spurts of humanity due to which Bombay or any city continues to thrive. He has made a fruitful and meaningful career now by cuing those silences with rare restraint, as is evident in Bombay-set Photograph (2019) with wondrously effective turns by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra and the beautifully subdued international feature Our Souls at Night (2017) toplining legends Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. The starting point for that quiet strength of individuals began with The Lunchbox for him and will continue to be a landmark for Indian cinema, released as it was in a year when our national filmic cannon completed a glorious hundred years.
Essentially a study of loneliness, Batra finds a tender spot of chance and serendipity that leads two random middle class individuals to begin an epistolary correspondence full of empathy and charm. Before you jump to conclusions, the exchange of lucidly written notes between housewife Ila (a breakout turn for Nimrat Kaur) and an honest and diligent government employee Saajan Fernandes (the inimitable Irrfan Khan) subverts tricks of the trade and gives the audience a moment to reckon with in its overall measured artistry. The film so naturally and practically balances the undercurrent of repressive lives for both protagonists with a life-force which is almost invisible. Ila is a thirty-something married woman whose husband cheats on her, illustrated in the scene where she smells his shirt and in little moments where he doesn’t even look at her or appreciate her cooking skills when she enquires if he liked the lunch prepared by her, after he returns home from work. Saajan is on the brink of retirement and is fiercely introverted which immediately puts him at a distance. They are framed as such so that we feel their manners accustomed to this mundaneness we all seem to inherit.
Ila and Saajan are divided by age but not by the insular similarity of their circumstances or day to day churnings. They live in ordinary homes which aren’t even properly furnished and Saajan’s office space is drab just like any government unit. The difference being that he at least has his work to punctuate his life, while Ila is just another individual in the worldwide statistic of females tied to soul-crushing domesticity with no real acknowledgement from anyone, least of all her husband. Her cooking is perhaps her only true source of happiness and her talent for cooking is recognized in due course by an unlikely ally Saajan when her husband’s dabba (lunchbox) gets mixed up with his daily lunch order. The lunchbox hence turns these lives into an intersection where their common loneliness is evenly distributed in a sea of millions, ensuing a friendship through letters.
This exchange through notes makes sense, given the unusual circumstances through which they get to know each other and their lines of decorum leave them with this sole option to truly connect. In the age of vapid likes and shares on social media, that distant anticipation of receiving notes from each other gives them a sense of unified comfort. Their faces and the scenario liven up as they read out their words, forming an interpersonal bond reserved to their mutual interactions. That sense of validation of the written word is sought for emotionally engaging us as it happens in our real lives every so often. This acknowledgement of words exchanged is doubly important in times we live in. That is the beauty of this script where they learn each other’s names in the same manner of languid progression. Especially beautiful is the way Ila discovers Saajan’s name and it is juxtaposed with the all-time classic soundtrack of a 1990s film by the same name as his. To think that the leads do not actually encounter each other face to face is further a mark of its unusual handling of a star-crossed track; it shows rather than tell. For example, Saajan secretly watches Ila from afar in the restaurant where they were scheduled to meet, unable to muster up the courage to meet her. It is as simple as it is evocative, intimately connecting us with individuals.
As for the relationship shared between the two characters, it is neither an affair nor a dalliance mostly because of any absence of physical interaction as also owing to the sober demeanours of the two. To me, it is a union of souls extenuated from the very idea of selfhood, a rendezvous of two spirits drifting without purpose. There’s a silence within the clamour, an old-world felicity within a subculture of glamorous rootlessness. In a way, The Lunchbox is a green signal for a bolder, more fluid counterpoint to the industry’s usual conventional ambitions in terms of storytelling and craft.
Its characteristic grace is punctuated by the repose present in Kaur and Irrfan’s performances. Also, Nawazuddin Siddiqui is a pro at portraying varying shades of a common man, as he brings his minimalist A-game here as well. Everything is basically authentic in terms of the ethos and dialogic interplay. Its open-ended climax is another detour from conventional resolutions even though it may be disagreeable at first glance to some. In turn, Ritesh scores brownie points by illuminating a supporting part by Bharti Achrekar (in a uniquely vocal turn) in an effortless and witty way, while Lillette Dubey as Ila’s mother heartbreakingly underscores the inheritance of loss and suffering that pervades our consciousness. All of these women have sacrificed their adult lives at the altar of marriage and the part where Ila looks at her own daughter symbolizes how that fate is reserved for millions of women right from their childhoods where they internalize the silences. Hence the loneliness, instance of a suicide of another housewife quoted by Ila and the death of dreams. These are issues that have come into focus now in the age of quarantine where daily emotional turbulences become exacerbated and pronounced for those who are trapped in isolation for years, within this whole meridian of family and society.
The Lunchbox is also a film that specifically connects us to the pathos of loneliness in a big city like Bombay where receiving a smile from a neighbour, as in the case of Saajan towards the closing minutes, is enough to reassure us. When we reflect on our own changed personal stations in life now, we realize that people like Ila and Saajan have lived it forever, within little islands of mundaneness and imposed isolation, without somehow giving up. That is their strength, their hope and ultimate gift of self-preservation. The active sense of the dabbawalas being a veritable lifeline of the city is a strand that runs through it. In this era of lockdown, we wonder how that has become divorced from the core of its unifying force.
Soaked in silences, The Lunchbox is uplifting modern cinema that stays true to its humanist heart and hardly loses touch with it. It bundles wit, personal discovery, practical wisdom and unrequited desires. It shows that when our talents are at their pinnacle, nobody can touch us.
Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow. After completing his MPhil, he launched his writing career by self-publishing on the worldwide community Wattpad in 2015 and on his blog ‘An Awadh Boy’s Panorama’. He has published in several journals such as Gnosis Journal, Reader’s Digest, Café Dissensus Everyday, Café Dissensus Magazine, Confluence, The Medley, Thumbprint Magazine, Wilda Morris’ Poetry Blog, Screen Queens, Borderless Journal, encompassing various genres of writing, ranging from poetry to film reviews, travel pieces, photo essay, and culture.