Review by Martin I. Petrov
A young wife carefully prepares the first lunch box for her husband. Three tiny round aluminium boxes are assembled into a cylindrical Tiffin carrier and wrapped in a unique, home-knitted case before they start a journey in the streets of Mumbai to reach their recipient.
For centuries, the lunchbox system in some of the biggest Indian megapolises has worked unmistakably. On a routine work day, Saajan (Irrfan Khan) receives a lunchbox with very unusual and remarkably tasty food for the catering company he’s subscribed to. He decides to reply with a short handwritten message only to find out on the following day that this lunchbox was never made for him.
As the letter exchange continues and the letters become longer, we find out more about the characters, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and Saajan, through a pile of casual confessions that gradually acquire strong emotional background. The lunchbox that was initially the golden cut where the lifelines of two people crossed one another turns now into a simple medium, a carrier of hope, motivation and eventually love.
The Lunchbox definitely belongs to the contemporary Indian parallel cinema, the social naturalist examples that take a way different from mainstream Bollywood. Zooming on one of the most common everyday traditional activities in modern India, the simplicity of the plot allows more space for the characters to construct and expand their social substance and deep-rooted national identity.
Ila is the incarnation of a traditional middle-class Indian woman. She takes care of her family; she is the emotional milestone carrying the weighs of being the ideal partner, the perfect mother and housewife. Her daily social contact is limited to abstract and funny conversation with her ‘auntie’ living on the upper floor and whose presence is signified only by her voice. Like deus ex machina, the invisible ‘auntie’ is omnipresent to provide spiritual support, to give advice and last but not least – cooking tips.
Saajan is a middle-aged widower who is deeply drowned in the day-today routine. He dreams of the days of retirement away from the chaotic life in Mumbai. His existential discouragement is sourced from his belief that no one out there would be interested in entering his private space. When Ila’s lunchbox challenges his brevity and boldness for re-entering social life, Saajan goes through a painful, yet reviving self-confrontation.
Observing Ila’s household and Saajan’s working environment, mixed up with eastern cosmopolitanism, is a joyful journey in a less complex bourgeois lifestyle. The quiet, almost silent dialogue of the two protagonists is slightly disturbed from time to time from the buzzing sounds of Mumbai’s trains, the busy street traffic and the lunchbox transporters. This atmospheric division in the sound, paired up with a multidimensional experience of India with the colourful attires and aromatic tastes that filter through the image is a pure, genuine and naturalistic wander.
The Lunchbox is surely the symbol of personal disengagement for two people, captives of the social structuralism and their own choices. At the same time, it encloses strong, monumental cultural significance that is so often jostled even in the brightest examples of national cinema that enter the festival circuit.