Move over “Raanjhanaa” – there is a new love story in town and it is by far the closest one has come to the most abused four letter word in the history of mankind - love. It is in the sweet and spicy aromas of Ila’s (Nimrat Kaur) cooking that fills your senses and warms your heart, in the neat folds of thoughtfully composed handwritten notes, in the finely chopped vegetables for a loving partner, in humming old songs, in the courage to stand by a friend, in the small acts of random kindnesses - packed in an ordinary stainless steel lunchbox are life’s most extraordinary recipes. Director Ritesh Batra delivers a wholesome chicken soup for the soul, and it has indeed left us full and humbled. Unlike the love stories of today, raging with anger, lust, greed, vengeance, obsession, “The Lunchbox” gives love its true and due credit. It’s not in stalking, claiming, dying or fighting for, it’s instead in letting go and letting live, in acknowledging someone’s existence, in not taking their presence for granted, in allowing freedom – of space, of thought, of loving unconditionally, unselfishly.
Batra presents us with deeply excavated and chiseled characters – the ignored, desperate-for-husband’s attention, trapped in the monotony of daily life Ila; the lonely, bitter, pretty much robotic widower Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan), the hopeful aunty upstairs sharing everything from her masalas to her age old wisdom, the eager to please, happy go lucky colleague Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). I must say, Batra’s first triumph lies in the film’s brilliant cast – Kaur is exceptional, while it was a pleasure watching acting giants like Irrfan and Siddiqui share the same screen space. Bharti Achrekar’s voiceover brings the aunty upstairs to life.
The film is a simple love story between two lonely souls whose lives collide when the dabbawalas send the lunchbox to the wrong address. It’s a rare occurrence, but then, as the film goes, sometimes the wrong train takes you to the right destination. With her mehndi stained fingernails, sipping on tea in a cutting chai glass, Ila savours every word in the letter penned by Saajan, who accidentally is treated to the tiffin she has prepared for her unappreciative distant husband. There is talk of little salt and too much spice, of Gross National Happiness in Bhutan, living on bananas for lunch, giving up cigarettes, watching re-runs of old shows like “Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi,” how there is no value for talent in this country (true), being allotted vertical burial plots after standing in trains all of one’s life, of forgetting things when one has no one to talk to… These are lives living in quiet desperation, holding on to hope. Ila’s Hindi-Marathi accent, Irrfan’s unmistakable Catholic voice, Siddiqui’s upbeat tenor are pitch perfect. But most of all, it’s the film that, although slow in bits and parts, is achingly endearing and pleasantly comforting, and restores our faith in quality cinema. I recommend a dekho.