If you know anything about Mumbai, you are aware that the size of its population defies imagination. What is remarkable about it is that, despite having almost twenty million people, it is only the second largest city in India, surpassed only by the capital of Delhi. What Mumbai has that its larger sister does not is its country’s center for film making, commonly referred to as Bollywood. The stereotype about these films is that they are full of large, colorful weddings and other ceremonies that usually feature dancing. To be sure, there is a fair bit of such scenes in India’s offerings. However, if you think that is all there is to Indian cinema, you should watch The Lunchbox (2013).
One of the cooler services you can find in Mumbai is the city-wide lunch delivery service. This is something The Lunchbox shows us right away. Apparently this system is nearly infallible, which is amazing when you consider the city’s size and myriad population. This is something that Ila (Nimrat Kaur) counts on as she prepares a midday meal for her husband, Rajeev (Nakul Vaid), after sending her daughter to school. Despite the near infallibility of the deliverymen, a reputation of which they are quite defensive, her food containers end up on Saajan Fernandes’ (Irrfan Khan) desk. He works as an accountant of sorts for a large company and he is weeks away from an early retirement. The same day the erroneous lunch arrives is when he is introduced to his eventual replacement, an eagerly obsequious man named Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Saajan is less than thrilled to have this younger man foisted on him, and is able to dodge him for a few days. After the first time eating the wrong food, neither Saajan or Ila or wise to the mistake. She receives back the containers, sees they are empty, and thinks her husband enjoyed what she prepared. However, Saajan goes to the restaurant that he is paying to thank them for some extraordinarily well cooked food. Their confusion is the first clue that something is amiss. The second is when Rajeev returns home and talks about cauliflower that Ila did not make. Ila longs to impress her husband with her culinary creations, but his distant demeanor causes her to not say anything about the emerging mix up. Somebody seems to be enjoying her work and that is enough for now. Thus the next day she sends off the full containers once more, only to find in them when they are returned saying that the food was too salty that day. This triggers a series of letters between the two where they, and we along with them, reveal more about each other and their daily lives. They become confidants. Saajan’s wife had passed away a few years previously and this is the source of a latent bitterness. Ila’s marriage is not a happy one, particularly when she suspects that he is cheating on him based on late nights at work and shirts with the smell of another woman on them (she did a lot of smelling anyway, and that was the conclusion she seemed to reach). Their exchange brings some semblance of joy to Saajan’s life, and he evens begins to befriend Shaikh. Eventually, they agree to meet. While Ila keeps their assignation, sitting in a cafe and expectantly searching the face of each passerby, Saajan gets cold feet. After meticulously preparing for meeting Ila, Saajan looks in the mirror and feels his age. He does go to get a glimpse of her, but ultimately stands her up. Though he apologizes with another letter, she feels that not only had Saajan forsaken her, but that Rajeev was no longer worth the effort and decides to leave with her daughter. After one last attempt to find Saajan at his office, unsuccessful because he had finally retired, she resolves to take her daughter and travel to Bhutan where she believes they will be happier. The film ends, excruciatingly, with Ila waiting for her daughter to get home from school and Saajan traveling to her home to finally have that personal encounter.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Lunchbox, but with it concluding before they encounter one another, after having their potential relationship built up for the length of the film, it was a bit maddening. It also hinted at possible disaster as a woman and her child commit suicide at one point in the film. At least this is something Ila does not resort to, and I thank God for it. But I fervently wished that they would meet, even though technically she was cheating on her husband as well with the letters. Nonetheless, I desire happy endings, and I expected such an outcome. Expectations are a funny thing, and something I have been learning more about lately in spiritual direction. In my last meeting with my director he drove home how often expectations do not always align with God’s will. It is useful to have such voices in our lives that help steer us back onto the right path. For Ila, that is her Auntie (voiced by Bharti Achreker). We never actually see her, but she lives in the apartment above Ila and is always available when her niece calls to her from below. There is nothing comparable to seeking advice from on high.
One of my favorite lines in The Lunchbox is that sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right station. For the film, it is meant to relate to the relationship between Ila and Saajan, since he is older and she is married but they seem right for each other. As a Catholic, divorce is not something encouraged in my Faith, but the Church does allow that sometimes the bond between two people can go awry. Aside from these issues, and the let down at the end, the movie is a delight to watch and gets my recommendation. There is nothing truly objectionable about it, and even though it does not deal with the kind of experiences typical to American audiences, it will lead you to the right station.