When most people think of Bollywood, what come to mind are lavishly costumed fairytale melodramas stuffed with big musical production numbers, of little interest to cinephiles in this country outside the South Asian expatriate community. Thus Ritesh Batra’s first feature film The Lunchbox (Dabba) comes as a stealthy surprise that even Anglo audiences can dig into with relish.
It’s not an extravaganza in the usual Bollywood mode, but a gently funny, wistful romance about two lost souls in Mumbai who connect via notes tucked into a stack of nested lunch tins. Yes, there’s a bit of singing – snatches of popular song drifting from an apartment-complex window, or a troop of kids on a train chanting off-key, or the formidable dabbawallas shouting out their proud theme song as their truckload of lunchboxes plies the bumpy streets of the Indian metropolis – but it could never be categorized as a musical.
There are elements of magical realism in the way that certain incidents are linked by improbable coincidences wafting through the air. But the lead characters seem believably real and grounded in life’s disappointments, and their arc to a happy ending is left hanging ambiguously in midair. Whatever you were expecting from a movie made in India, The Lunchbox isn’t it.
NYU-trained director Batra initially set out to make a documentary about the dabbawallas, who for over a century have been hauling urban workers’ lunches, prepared at home for them by their spouses in the morning, to their offices by lunchtime. A Harvard Business School study – the inspiration for a very funny scene toward the end of the movie, where a dabbawalla insists that the mix-up that propels the narrative could not possibly have happened – lauded the huge operation as a model of efficiency. Batra even imbedded himself with a dabbawalla crew for a time. But somewhere along the line, the concept morphed into a fiction feature, and the result is a charming debut presaging a career to keep an eye on in the future.
The two principals of The Lunchbox are Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a lovely, 30ish wife and mother whose husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid) has become oblivious to her, and Saajan (Irrfan Khan, who played the adult Pi in Life of Pi), a lonely widower nearing retirement from his job as an insurance claims processor. Since his wife’s death Saajan has become something of a misanthrope, barking at children playing ball in front of his home and repeatedly blowing off Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a feckless but ambitious younger man who wants Saajan to train him as his replacement.
Ila, meanwhile, suspects infidelity on her husband’s part, and in a desperate effort to rekindle his interest, she begins focusing all her considerable culinary expertise on the preparation of his midday meal. That’s when the dabbawalla service inexplicably switches Shaikh’s lunchbox with the one that Saajan orders daily from a restaurant. Shaikh never notices; but starting with his first whiff of Ila’s cooking, Saajan begins gradually to fall in love. A note tucked into the returned container explaining that there has been an error turns into an epistolary romance in which these two people who have never met share philosophies and begin to fantasize about running away together to Bhutan to enjoy its much-touted Gross National Happiness quotient.
All the major performances in this low-key romantic comedy are naturalistic and skillful, with the grumpy-faced Khan saying more with a single eyebrow lift or slight scowl than in a paragraph’s worth of dialogue. The story is sweet but not frothy or improbably optimistic, a little achy but refreshingly free of excess pathos. And the gritty surroundings of Mumbai come so vividly to life that the city itself becomes one of The Lunchbox’s primary characters. I can’t think of a more subtly enticing entryway to the joys of Indian cinema. It’ll add a dash of curry to your workweek for sure.