It has been a mad rush of deadlines for the last several months, but we saw such a nice film today at Asbury Park’s Showroom, a small quiet film, that I wanted to say a few small quiet things about it before its power faded in the face of the next onslaught of deadlines. I have recently lost a few beautiful movies in this way: notably, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Finding Vivian Maier, and Nyphomaniac Part I; I didn’t want to risk that happening again.
The Lunchbox is a wistful, charming movie about two isolated people living in what has to be the most crowded city in the world, Mumbai, who connect, bond, grow, and change literally over lunch: all without ever meeting each other. It is a rather wonderful story set in the most humdrum workaday world. She is a housewife; he is an accountant. She is married to a workaholic negligent spouse; he is an aging widower facing a lonely early retirement. Both are surrounded by reminders of the fragility and emptiness of life: she lives below her unseen older neighbors, one of whom has been in a coma for the past 15 years; he smokes each night on his balcony, watching the family next door at their evening meal: they could be on Mars, so remote is their experience from his own.
In Mumbai, hot lunches from home or from restaurants are delivered to office workers just in time for the midday meal. This 125-year-old dabbawala system is a model of low-tech efficiency, as a raft of couriers bring lunches from homes to offices via bike and train, with nary a mistake or mix-up.
Except in The Lunchbox, where Ila’s lovingly prepared lunch for her husband is delivered to the dour Saajan. And this unheard-of chance accident launches an improbable and unlooked-for relationship conducted entirely through notes exchanged via the lunchbox as it makes its daily round between the two. This begins with a reproof, moves on to clumsy advice, and then progresses to deeper and deeper soul-baring as these two sad people dare to think of happiness. And it all springs from the sensual, communal, essential, and essentially human, humble lunchtime meal.
Movies can give you color and light, whispers and shouts. But they cannot convey smell. This movie can. That’s why I chose the image at the top.
Saajan’s senses come alive at the very sight of his green lunchbox, bursting with health and vitality. And as he is simultaneously nourished by Ila’s delicious and meticulously created concoctions and her growing friendship and trust, he becomes more open to the other small pleasures in his limited world: notably, the friendship of his eager trainee, Shaikh (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, whose swarthy good looks and blunt likeability reminded me of a young Tony Curtis). A real pleasure of the movie is watching Saajan allow Shaikh to come closer and closer. And Shaikh is immensely appealing as one of those Saajan decries early on as not having more than an apple or a banana for his lunch, trading his pathetic pieces of fruit to share Ila’s meals with Saajan.
In an early note, Saajan responds with vague platitudes to Ila’s despair over her husband’s lack of affection. And I thought two contradictory things: first that these are the kinds of remarks we make when we really don’t know what to say or who we’re talking to—the silly, pointless, or obvious things we say to a stranger that don’t really, can’t really, help at all. And I also thought, but to try to say something, however trite, is rather noble; to try to bridge that chasm, however feebly, is a starting point.
The Lunchbox is filled with these small revelations. It is not really a love story, but it is about opening yourself up to love, to life, to possibility—not in the grand American Singin’ in the Rain swinging on lampposts tradition—but in a humble flower turning to face the sun kind of way. Life in Mumbai teems with humanity. And what The Lunchbox says is that if we allow ourselves to open up just a bit, to dream, to hope, then we can see the humane and human in all that humanity. Or at least to smell a satisfyingly pungent aroma, to taste a delicious and unexpected lunch, to share a meal.