Director: Ritesh Batra
IE Rating: *** 1/2
Imagine this. You are a man on the down slope of middle age. There are only dead ends in your dead beat life. You work in an office in which you push files all day long, and the days blur into sameness. And then one afternoon, as you pull your lunchbox towards yourself, something stirs. An unknown fragrance wafts out of the dabba, and you pause, and you look again. Is this really yours? You hesitate, look inside. Instead of the everyday, dull industrial food that you pay a monthly sum for, your lunchbox is loaded with home-made goodies that bring a smile to your eyes and mouth. This is food made with love, sweat and tears. This is food for the soul.
In one of the best performances you are likely to encounter, Irrfan, playing Saajan Fernandes, makes you see that middle-aged man. Not just see, but feel. That lunch box becomes a symbol of hope. Of a renewed interest in the present. And of a future, waiting to be realised.
Ritesh Batra's research on the legendary Mumbai dabbawalas who deliver millions of lunchboxes everyday through the city with unerring accuracy, led to his first feature. 'The Lunchbox' is about a dabba that fetches up at the wrong table, and the tasty fall-out of that little sin. I don't know if those famed dabbawalas have ever made such a mistake, but the result of Batra's mixed-up 'dabbas' is lovely, with a lingering delectable after-taste.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a young stay-at-home wife and mother, whose routine – wake up, get kiddo ready, see off hubby, sort out clothes for the wash, get the dabba ready—is leavened by perky chats with an elderly neighbour, whose nosiness we overlook because of her apparent affection for Ila (we never see her, only hear the voice, and then we clock Bharati Achrekar's distinctive accent). She gives Ila pro tips on seasoning and condiments and ingredients, to target her husband's (Nakul Vaid) stomach, and through it, his increasingly indifferent heart .
Irrfan says little, letting his body do the talking. He is sitting most of the time we see him. At a desk, piled with crumpled paper, where he crunches numbers. At a table in the office canteen, where he spreads the dabba's wares, starting to come alive again. In his home, cluttered with old memories. Only once, when he is leaning against the balcony, and we see him from behind, does he forget his bent-by-life stance, and that's his only tiny misstep, which you notice only because the rest of it is pitch perfect. He sniffs the dabba's aroma, lets a slow smile build across his face, and we smile right back.
Nimrat Kaur is a find. Her Ila is so there, a real woman trying to find her happiness in the little things she does. A whisk of a wrist puts in mirch, haldi and sprinkles dhaniya, and when she hands the dabba to the man at the door, you know it's not just a steel container, but her beating heart. The hand-written notes that come back to her in the dabba, and the notes she writes in response, made me wistful, and hope good things happen to her.
And a side note on Nawazuddin, who is a side note in this winsome story on love and loss and longing, who comes through with a beautifully-calibrated act. Shaikh is an irritant, who keeps popping up to accost Saajan to get him to do things he, Saajan, doesn't want : Shaikh understands he is being blown off, and yet keeps his dignity intact. It's hard to take your eyes off Irrfan when he is in full flow, but Nawazuddin demands attention in his own right.
If it hadn't been for the occasional flatness, and a couple of predictable notes, there would have been no flaws in this dabba. I also found Ila's mother's (Lillete Dubey) segment, included solely to underline another kind of vacantness, a little forced. But these are tiny niggles in this film that gets the rest of it so right. Batra's characters are a delight. They may be of Mumbai, infused with intense desi flavours, but can inhabit any part of the world. You want to take them home, sit them down at your table, and savour them, one mouthful at a time.