The Lunchbox is a plainly-told love story that takes its inspiration from the dabbawalas of India, couriers who collect freshly-made lunches from the homes of thousands of workers every day, deliver them to their workplaces and then return the empty dabbas (lunchboxes) to be used the following day.
The film begins with the misdelivery of one of these lunchboxes, an impossibility according to the dabbawala responsible, who confidently explains that, ‘Harvard came to study our system. They say that there is no error’ (which is broadly true; in 2010 Harvard Business School did publish a case study of the dabbawala system). Ila (Nimrat Kaur), an unhappily married woman living with an absent and unfaithful husband, is the one challenging the dabbawala. Although her carefully prepared lunches are going to the wrong address they are being returned completely empty every day; it doesn’t take her long to figure out that her husband has not been the one eating them. The beneficiary of her delicious food is Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a lonely, cantankerous widower nearing retirement.
After overcoming the initial confusion the pair begin to use the dabba that is passed back-and-forth between them to exchange letters. A tender, tentative love story develops after Ila and Saajan make contact. They are two lonely people in a city of millions, each finding comfort from a sympathetic pen-pal. Ritesh Batra avoids the fancy of attributing their story to fate or destiny, instead focusing on their relationship and their mutual desire to connect in an increasingly impersonal world. Ila and Saajan both start off as victims of their loneliness yet each coaxes the other to action through heartfelt correspondence and mouth-watering daal.
As Saajan is encouraged to open up to Ila he also finds himself subject to the attention of an inquisitive young assistant, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), whose enthusiasm is sharply contrasted with the older man’s cynicism. Similarly, Ila’s cooking is often accompanied by the wisdom of ‘Auntie,’ who yells her advice – and lends her ingredients – from the flat above. Their presence not only provides some comic relief but also encourages Saajan and Ila to explore their feelings for each other despite their initial misgivings. Shaikh’s influence on Saajan is significant; the latter finds himself an inadvertent – albeit temporary – father-figure to his assistant, who was orphaned at a young age. Saajan may have been appalled by this position prior to the mix-up with the lunchbox but it provides him some much-needed solace from his isolation.
The Lunchbox is charming, honest, funny and grounded with a pragmatism that escapes many cinematic love stories. It’s never clear how this long-distance romance is going to resolve itself, but by the end we get the impression that this is not the point. Hope glows in Saajan’s chest like Auntie’s red chilli and that might be victory enough.