THE LUNCHBOX (Dabba) B-
India France Germany USA (104 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: Ritesh Batra Official Site [United States]
During the hustle and bustle of massive commuter traffic getting to and from work in Mumbai, India, where workers must negotiate the many jampacked bus and trainlines involved, there’s also the predictable routine of the empty jobs themselves, many of which offer little variety to the dreary and monotonous day-to-day existence, where individuals are pitted against the harsh and impersonal conditions of surviving in the city. With this backdrop, it’s easy to see how so many people’s lives can get distracted or lose their way in the sheer mayhem of survival, as few have time any more for the personal attention of lending a helping hand, where the exhausting toll of the accumulating pressures from getting through one day to the next can be overwhelming. In the collective disorder of a daily massive traffic jam, this film takes a look at the 120-year old practice of Mumbai’s Dabbawallahs, a community of about 5000 dabba (lunchbox) deliverymen who deliver home-cooked meals from housewives or selected food services to busy husbands at work, then returning the empty boxes afterwards. Most of those involved in the business are illiterate, yet they perfectly weave their way through a labyrinth of streets and addresses where a Harvard University study has concluded that they rarely if ever deliver the lunchboxes to a wrong address. While this film was originally conceived as a documentary about Mumbai’s Dabbawallahs, the director’s original screenplay was developed with the help of the Sundance Writer’s Workshop, turning this into an intricate character study that wants to be an old-fashioned romantic comedy.
Seen through the eyes of two individuals, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a beautiful young and neglected housewife who lovingly prepares elaborate dishes to attract her husband’s attention, continually seen calling to her Auntie living upstairs caring for her infirmed husband, who always has a magical cure for missing ingredients, dropping them in a basket lowered by a rope. The two of them conspire to get Ila’s husband back from the job he’s apparently married to, as he’s largely absent from the home, which includes a young daughter, and when he is there, he’s completely disinterested. While Ila’s life exists between the four walls of her apartment where she’s seemingly confined, she’s devoted to her daughter and playfully communicates with her Auntie all day long, turning into a running gag, as the Auntie is never seen but only heard, but she easily has some of the most comical lines in the whole film. When she takes special care to prepare a culinary delight that is her husband’s favorite, he barely notices when he gets home, but from his rather standard reaction she realizes her lunchbox was sent to someone else. So she places a note in the next day’s meal which is received by Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a government accountant working in a nondescript and impersonalized working environment, a man who spends a good part of his day simply getting to and from work, so by the time he’s back to his home, a small dwelling where he lives alone, he smokes off a ledge after preparing his own small meal and peers into the delicious-looking family style meal being devoured by a family across the way. Saajan has worked the same job for 35 years and is nearing retirement, but his future is uncertain after his wife died years ago. Somehow, by some supposedly impossible error, these two lonely souls connect and share thoughts about their lives through a series of notes passed to each other.
This sudden departure from the normal routine has a way of jumpstarting new energy into their lives, where each day holds an element of anticipation. No sooner does Saajan become enthralled at what awaits him from his mystery woman but he’s continually interrupted by the new person hired to take his place after retirement, the overeager Shaaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), whose loud, unbridled enthusiasm contrasts with Saajan’s more quietly reserved style, as he prefers to savor these moments alone, conjuring up his own imaginary world, but is instead continually hounded by the new guy. When Shaaikh explains that he’s an orphan who taught himself everything, having spent his life moving from place to place, he draws the expected sympathy from Saajan who finally acknowledges him and even invites him to share his treasured meals, as all many Indian workers have for lunch is just two bananas, where Shaaikh upgrades his lunch to include two apples, which he gladly shares. While the movie conveniently leaves Shaaikh out of the picture while Saajan reads his notes, the intimacy between the two strangers has grown to actually considering a future together, as Saajan is unsure of his plans post-retirement, but develops an imaginary scenario that includes Ila. While the story itself is decidedly light and is something of a choreography of missed direction, the narrative is developed around the preparation of savory meals, where attention to detail is the film’s appeal, where the two leads are fully developed characters, becoming the intimate focus of the film, much more than the comic relief of the secondary roles. While this is a perfectly enjoyable film, among the festival favorites, there’s little lasting effects afterwards, as it’s fairly mainstream arthouse entertainment, where what’s unusual is the meticulous detail drawn by immersing the film in the rare and distinct atmosphere of the Mumbai Dabbawallahs, where hot and steamy overpopulation is seen in all its glory.