Food for Thought in The Lunchbox

In all of The Lunchbox, it is either cloudy or raining. The bleak Mumbai monsoon acts as a powerful metaphor for longing, dejection and gloom. Talking of rain, isn’t it fascinating how it can symbolize heady romance just as well as it does frustration and hopelessness?

The Lunchbox is about dysfunctional marriages, disease, suicide and death but also about hope and the desire for happiness. It is a relentlessly grim story, the only distractions coming in the form of close-up shots of great-looking food and the antics of the fabulously irritating Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Newcomer Nimrat Kaur excels as Ila– the lower-middle class stay-at-home mum whose existence  revolves around trying to get her indifferent, emotionally distant husband’s attention.

A rare goof-up by Mumbai’s famed dabbawallahs( who have been shown at work with a documentary -like focus) causes the lunch-box meant for Ila’s husband to reach Saajan Fernandez, a dour widower on the verge of retirement. Fernandez obviously doesn’t mind partaking some good, home-cooked food. Ila on her part is pleasantly surprised by the appreciation that comes her way in the form of a dabba polished clean. Both realize immediately that something is amiss.

Ila makes no attempt to correct the mistaken dabbawallah–instead, what ensues is a  chain of correspondence which is as revelatory as it is mundane, with both correspondents coming to share with each other bits and pieces of their ordinary lives which add up to more than the sum of the parts.

That Ila so quickly opens up to an absolute stranger says something about the extent of her loneliness and her need to be heard by someone, anyone. She doesn’t seem to have friends. The only person who brings a measure of companionship and cheer in the drudgery of her everyday life is a neighbour she calls aunty– whom we get to hear but not see.

I was more cynical about Fernandez’s motives in taking the conversation forward. Well, he is widowed and lives alone –and she is young and a great cook and her marriage has hit a bumpy patch. No wonder the guy got a wee bit hopeful!

In one letter, Ila writes about a mother-child double suicide that has hit the headlines–and wonders how much courage it must take to actually jump off a building. And while she is wondering, we’re shown a grab of Ila blindfolding her daughter and climbing with her to the top of the building while the daughter asks, hum kahan ja rahen hain? Fortunately, she cannot bring herself to take the plunge.

It is not made clear whether Ila is merely imagining what it might be like to commit a double suicide, or whether she is remembering an actual unsuccessful attempt. To me it looked like the latter. I thought it was rather chilling. It brought to mind those young women one reads about in the papers who kill themselves ostensibly because they’re stuck in hopeless marriages and cannot see a way out. So much for India’s low divorce rates.

There is a history of suicides in Ila’s family. Ila’s brother had killed himself when he failed some exam. The everlasting stigma suffered by the family of the person committing suicide is poignantly brought home when Ila delicately hints to her husband that maybe it is time for their daughter to have a sibling. ‘Tumhara bhi toh tha na ek?” (Didn’t you have one too?) her husbands retorts. That shuts Ila up, just as it is intended to.

It is hardly all hunky-dory on the front of what remains of Ila’s natal family either. Her father is dying of lung cancer and her mother is struggling to cope with it financially and emotionally. On one occasion, Ila is shown offering monetary help hesitantly. Her mother first declines and then accepts the offer– but not without bemoaning how things would not have come to such a pass if her son were living. Even in death, the son fares better than the living daughter because of what-could-have-been.

It is when her father passes away that Ila has the most telling exchange with her mother. The first thing she says when she arrives to console her mother is how her husband is too busy to come down right now but will be present at the funeral. Making excuses for the husband comes naturally to a lot of women– they do it unthinkingly, in the direst of situations.

The mother, on the other hand, is distraught enough to speak the truth for the first time in her life.”I loved him initially, when you were little, but of late I only ever found him revolting and repulsive” she blabbers, much to Ila’s acute unease.

In the midst of all this, Ila feels drawn to this stranger who has become her sounding board, and now wants to meet him in person.  Fernandez, though, suddenly begins to feel that she is too young for him and develops cold feet at the last moment. Ila is left crushed but picks herself up soon. Her fierce pursuit of happiness, despite all the bad cards that life has dealt her, is inspiring as well as sobering.

Irrfan Khan broods through the role of Fernandez with characteristic  panache but it is Nimrat Kaur as Ila who walks away with the movie. I only knew her as the Cadbury’s silk ad model with the lovely smile–turns out she can do a lot more than look pretty!

Quite unlike most Hindi movies, the Lunchbox is open-ended, with just a whiff of hope that Ila and Fernandez may yet come together somewhere along the line. It is quite ‘foreign’ in its treatment and execution– no song and dance, for one, and the unusual, deliberately vague ending for another. And oh, no shying away from showing all the dirt and grime, of course. The movie won rave reviews at Cannes. It is a mystery to me why it didn’t get sent to the Oscars in the best foreign movie category– it might have had a real chance.

The lunchbox takes a long hard look at Indian-style dysfunctional marriages, more the norm than the exception, and leaves us squirming. It is not a fun movie to watch, but hey, anyday this than a Chennai express or a Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani ! At least it makes you think!

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13 Responses to Food for Thought in The Lunchbox

  1. Fem says:

    I found it a good film – but very depressing. Depressing because I know this is the story of millions of lifeless marriages in India, of women who don’t dare to fight back, of old couples who don’t give a shit about each other, of women who think that loneliness can be cured with babies, of men and women who don’t have hobbies, of women who cannot help their families because they aren’t brought up to work and the same families make them feel inferior. Thank heavens for the lovely food close-ups or I would have been close to suicide myself.

    • Depressing for sure, and certainly all the more so because it is so close to the truth, which never gets spoken in India. For instance I have never heard any woman express anything but profound sorrow when a bed-ridden husband passes away, though I suspect some of them might actually have harboured thoughts not unlike Ila’s mother’s.

  2. Fem says:

    And weren’t we supposed to meet up at some point? 😀

  3. Jas says:

    I also felt the same after seeing the movie. So vocal about our indian mentality and lifestyle and need to stick to age old happy marriage disguise.

  4. Rekha says:

    It was indeed a well-made thought provoking movie. First timer Ritesh Batra has done a marvelous job. Look forward to more of such meaningful and realistic movies from young Indian directors. Yeah, any day this than Chennai Express, Besharam and the likes 🙂

  5. Amit says:

    I have to watch this. Maybe I will buy a DVD as soon as it hits the market.

  6. aarthy says:

    A very well written review. I read about this movie in the papers sometime back. Thinking of watching it.
    As for low divorce rates in India, I have also always felt that it is because of sheer lack of courage and societal support. People just live miserable lives quietly here for no fault of theirs.

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