How do you get lunch at work? Do you go out? order in? Maybe your company has a cafeteria or canteen, or maybe you pack in a lunch and eat at your desk.
In Mumbai, there’s another option: the dabbawalas. They form a labor-intensive distribution network that delivers your lunch to you, packed in a multi-tiered Indian lunchbox, or “dabba”. One carrier on a bicycle picks up a dabba prepared at your home, or at a restaurant with which you’ve made arrangements. They gather the dabbas, sort and group them according to their symbolic markings — many dabbawalas are illiterate — and send them out on the local train system. As each group nears its destination, another dabbawala takes them for delivery. And then they do it all over again, backwards, to return the dabbas after lunch. It’s been going on for over 130 years, with an error estimated once every few million deliveries.
First-time feature filmmaker Ritesh Batra wondered about that one mistake, and he’s spun that thread out into a beautifully romantic story. The Lunchbox is comfort food for the soul, at once rooted in its setting and universal in its sentiment.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) has been disappointed in her marriage, and wants to rekindle the sparks of romance. She takes the famous advice from Mrs. Deshpande, the old lady upstairs (Bharati Achrekar): the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. She sends off a special lunch and it comes back empty for once, but when her husband returns he doesn’t describe the same contents as she’d sent. The next day, she sends another lunch containing a note describing it as her husband’s favorite, which confirms that the lunchbox is going to someone else.
Thus begins the epistolary romance between Ila and Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widower nearing his retirement from a clerk’s position. She shares her misgivings about her marriage, and he begins to open up not only to her, but to the life around him. He even makes friends with Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the ambitious and sycophantic orphan who wants to take over Saajan’s position after he retires.
It’s almost a cliché that you can feel alone in a city so large and crammed with other people, but Batra explores this sense of isolation with surprising nuance. In a culture that places such importance on family ties, an orphan like Shaikh is all but socially outcast. Ila courts a similar excommunication if she leaves her husband. And yet Saajan cuts himself off in his grief, pushing everyone away, though inside he still longs for contact and connection. Even Mrs. Deshpande, Ila’s confidante, nurses an ailing husband who is cut off from the world.
And which of us, no matter where we live, hasn’t felt disconnected? Batra’s film speaks to us, reminding us that these connections are all around us, waiting to be discovered through something as simple and absurd as a misplaced dabba. And ultimately it’s these connections that nourish us more than the contents of any particular lunch.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.