At the center of The Lunchbox is a cultural insight, taken for granted by the film, that adds (to my pile of trivia and makes me feel like I know a little more about the world).
It’s the idea that office workers in Mumbai have their hot, home-made lunches delivered to them by a whole industry of handlers and delivery men. I recognize the stackable tin bowls from other films — it’s an idea that hasn’t caught on in the U.S. — but the insulated wrappers are an obvious improvement. If you don’t have a spouse to cook for you at home, you can have a restaurant cook, pack, and deliver your lunch as a daily service.
The opening scene of The Lunchbox shows us outsiders this amazing delivery network before introducing us to...
Mentor and Replacement
Saajan (Irrfan Khan) is an accountant in a roomful of accountants. He’s one of the older men in the room, and in fact he is retiring in a month or so. He exudes seniority, not just through his age, but through his diligent and professional manner. Later Khan lets us past Saajan’s professional exterior an shows us his dry wit and vulnerable interior.
Saajan’s replacement, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), has been hired and expects to be trained. But Saajan forms a bad first impression of Shaikh, who showed up a few minutes late to their first meeting. Saajan gives him the cold shoulder, doing everything in his power to keep the younger man from interrupting him for days on end. Shaikh seems like (and proves to be) the kind of guy who goes farther on his strong looks than his brain would otherwise take him.
Food as Communication
About that lunchbox... Saajan’s first on-screen encounter with it shows that he really enjoys his food. The movie takes a long time letting him smell it, unpack it, inspect it, and ultimately lick the dishes clean. It’s a very sensual experience.
At the other end of the lunchbox, we met Ila (Nimrat Kaur), listening to a cooking show and getting expert advice from her upstairs neighbor (“Auntie,” whom we hear but never see — they communicate through a basket on a rope). Auntie can tell that Ila’s recipe is missing a key spice just from the wafting odors, and she lowers the missing ingredient for Ila. Ila is a careful, demanding cook, and is grateful for the help.
The charmingly simple plot is revealed when we learn that Ila is not Saajan’s wife, but Rajeev’s (Nakul Vaid). Rajeev doesn’t notice that he gets a bland, cheap restaurant lunch. But Ila notices that her cooking has finally been appreciated, and Saajan definitely notices that the quality of his lunch has improved immensely.
Communicating at first only through food and the relative emptiness of containers, Saajan and Ila begin communicating through short, handwritten notes included in the lunchbox.
Relationships Built on Food
The various threads develop pretty far through the film’s 104-minute running time. There is trouble at work, a death, a wedding, and threats and promises to move out of the city. Saajan even warms up, eventually, to his often-frustrating young protégé.
For all that, The Lunchbox is less concerned with plot than characters and relationships. The only time I felt like the movie suffered for it was toward the end when lots of emotional developments started piling on top of one another. Cooking and food remain frequent touchstones throughout, forming the foundation of most of the film’s relationships.
To sum up with the obligatory food metaphor, The Lunchbox is an easy, palatable film with broad appeal. It’s not too spicy, not too foreign, somewhat filling but not too much.