English Title: The Lunchbox
Original Title: Dabba
Country: India, France, Germany, USA
Language: Hindi, English
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Ritesh Batra
Music: Max Richter
Cinematography: Michael Simmonds
Yashvi Puneet Nagar
Rarely an Indian film without its trademark dancing-and-singing routines, director/writer Ritesh Batra’s feature debut marvellously utilises the exotic “dabbawalas” system of Mumbai, which is an intricate lunch delivery service to people at work from their their homes or restaurants and is remarkable for its accuracy, but Batra fictionalises a little mix-up of the system and links two strangers into an epistolary communication, and from there, their penfriend-ship will further sublimate into something more genuine and profound.
Saajan Fernandes (Khan) is a middled-aged widower on the brink of early retirement as a senior accountant, he is withdrawn, cynical and tries to dodge the responsibility to train his new replacement Sheikh (Siddiqui). One day his colourless life is revitalised by a mis-delivered lunchbox which he vastly enjoys. The lunchbox is made by Ila (Kaur), a housewife who attempts to win the her husband’s heart through her cuisine. When Ila realises the delivery blunder, instead of righting the mistake, she starts to leave a note to this stranger in the lunchbox and Saajan writes back too, steadily, they exchange their own stories and life philosophy, which becomes the enzyme of a blossoming romance since both find a conduit and a confidant to change their disappointing status quo.
Like YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998), THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940), the two protagonists are destined to meet sine they are not like Helene Hanff and Frank P. Doel in 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD (1987) who are divided by the Atlantic ocean and deferred by a difficult economy situation. It is quite easy for them to meet when all the romantic buildup reaches its threshold, Ila finds out her husband is cheating on her whereas Saajan gets close with the orphan Sheikh, takes him as his protégé, and is ready to turn a new chapter of his life. But Batra refuses to hold out such an easy pass for their significant first meeting, for the sake of narrative twist, he wields the “sudden” epiphany of age difference as the obstacle to morally righteously curb the passion from Saajan’s side. And from then on, the film descends into a limbo of indecision, through Saajan’s capricious determinations, it actually reflects Batra’s insecurity of how to consummate the story in an unconventional way, as his first feature, his endeavour fails to achieve that goal with the over-contrived open ending.
Performances are uniformly pleasant to watch, Khan’s goggled eyes alone can patently exhume his deepest inner feelings to an affecting effect. Kaur, also downplays the default setting of an under-appreciated wife and evinces her steely resolution of a woman doesn’t yield to an unhealthy marriage. Siddiqui’s Sheikh. comes around often as comic relief with an inherent optimistic spirit, registers a well-developed balance of humour and earnestness.
The film’s retro flair in rediscovering the magic power of authentic writings is naturalistically endearing to endorse, and “sometimes the wrong train takes you to the right station”, is the motto conspicuously referred three times along the whole movie, THE LUNCHBOX is a rarity among the usual Bollywood products, its message can reach unanimously to every soul who is inspired to find its rightful purpose, and its arthouse appeal can lure those who are disinterested in Indian cinema (like myself) into its poetic embodiment of an unusual encounter.