The Lunchbox is subtle. Watching it, you realize that most American movies are chainsaw sculptures; this Indian film is slowly, artfully chiseled until the characters and their lives are fully, and finely, revealed.
The Lunchbox reminds us just how sensual food can be, just how romantic an exchange of letters can be, and just how much can be conveyed by an aubergine eggplant.
Ila (played by Nimrat Kaur) is a young housewife who fears her husband’s interest is waning. She consults her “auntie” — who lives in the flat upstairs and is never seen, though she becomes affectionately known to us — and the aunt sends down a basket on a rope in which are spices that, the aunt assures Ila, will make her husband want to build her the Taj Mahal. Ila laughs and reminds her aunt that the Taj Mahal is a tomb, but she takes the spices and begins cooking lunch for her husband.
The cooking and eating, the foods themselves, become like characters in the movie. Food is handled and photographed so well that you can almost smell and taste each dish. The dishes become the sensual heart of the story, and, when one character says of Ila’s cooking, “She has magic in her hands,” we know just what he means.
The lunch Ila prepares will be picked up by one of Mumbai’s 5,000 famous dabawallas, or lunch delivery men. They handle thousands of lunch sacks and boxes each day, carting them from homes and restaurants to offices and schools, the lunches tied to bicycles and transferred to trains and back to bicycles. It looks confusing, but the system is efficient and accurate. (A study conducted by Harvard estimated that the chances a daba-delivered lunch will be lost is one in a million.) Except for Ila, whose lunch, on the fateful day, is delivered to the wrong address. It is opened, and savored, by an older, widowed office worker, Saajan, (played by Irrfan Khan) who is about to retire after thirty-five years as a claim manager for the Indian government.
Saajan is a quiet man. His face is expressive, as are his hands, as he opens each small dish, sniffing the aroma of the food and taking out little bits to taste and savor. He sends the lunchbox back looking as though he licked each bowl clean, and he stops on the way home to compliment his local restaurant on the delicious lunch.
In the meantime, Ila is confused when her dour husband, Rajiv, (played by Nakul Vaid) comes home and reluctantly says he enjoyed the cauliflower she cooked. She knows he did not get her lunch. So, she sits down and writes a note to be put into tomorrow’s lunch.
Saajan reads the note and writes a reply. A correspondence begins, and with it, a friendship between two lonely people that may or may not turn into a love story.
If this sounds sappy or formulaic, it isn’t. The movie draws you in and makes you wonder — and care — about the characters and their conflicts and questions. And, in a happy surprise, The Lunchbox reminds us just how sensual food can be, just how romantic an exchange of letters can be, and just how much love and longing can be conveyed by an aubergine (eggplant), purchased and carefully prepared, and given to another, who receives and eats it with delight.
The Catholic Catalogue urges you to go the movies this Memorial Day weekend and savor The Lunchbox. You can even take the kids, who may be bored with the subtitled dialogue (and the long silences and the total absence of car crashes, gun battles or explosions) but who will not be traumatized or frightened in the least.
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