The Mumbai lunch delivery system has been going strong for well over a century and only one in six million deliveries goes to the wrong place. This is the story of that one wrong delivery…that may have actually been the most right delivery of all.
Ila is a young housewife and mother. Her husband is away a lot and does not really pay attention to her when he is home. Sensing that something is wrong with her marriage, she enlists the help of her upstairs neighbor, Desphande Auntie, to come up with a lunch that will get him to notice her again. She has it sent to his workplace via a decades-old lunch delivery system. This system is famously efficient and effective. Yet, somehow, her husband’s lunch gets switched.
Saajan is a widower who has had the same office job for thirty-five years and is close to retirement. Feeling rather unhappy with how his life has led up to this point, he tries to stave off the inevitable and keeps putting off training Shaikh, a chipper young man who is to be his replacement. Saajan is the accidental recipient of the lunch that Ila made. He cleans the entire lunchbox (which is more like a series of stackable cylindrical containers), assuming that the place where he has normally gotten his lunch from simply made something particularly delicious this time.
The deliveryman returns the extremely empty “lunchbox” to Ila, who takes the emptiness to mean that her husband really liked it. Unfortunately, he acts exactly the same when he returns home, and compliments the lunch only when she brings it up. He even mentions the wrong ingredient. Ila figures that the lunch went to the wrong person. Her upstairs neighbor is skeptical about it, but she suggests that Ila put in a note in the next day’s lunch thanking whoever appreciated it so much and saying that she has made her husband’s favorite recipe. And if that lunch happens to reach her husband this time, maybe it will make him notice her again.
When Saajan finds the note in his lunch, he assumes that one of his co-workers put it in there as a prank. Not the most people friendly of people, Saajan writes a note of his own, saying only that the food was very salty. Ila is, of course, not happy that this stranger, who did not give his name, ate all of her food and then responded to her somewhat personal letter with criticism. She considers telling the deliveryman about the lunchbox mixup, but her neighbor suggests a different recipe for the next day, with a few extra chilis for revenge. Saajan notices the spice and, without prompting, writes a letter to Ila, again without giving his name. Suggesting that the food was fine otherwise, he says that he ate some bananas after lunch to put out the fire and made the observation that some people eat only bananas for lunch. The next day, Ila decides to write about her helpful neighbor, whose husband has been in a veritable coma for fifteen years, just staring at the ceiling fan. Saajan writes back that things are so different now than how they were fifteen years ago, and not for the better, noting that his wife has got a horizontal burial plot when she died, but he could get only a vertical one. After spending his life standing on trains and buses, he will have to continue standing in death.
Thus begins a correspondence between two people across the city. They have little idea who the other is, but gradually learn more about each other than anyone else knows. And both of them are forever changed.
The Lunchbox is primarily two lonely people struggling to make sense of the society around them. Ila has been married for only a few years and already feels like her husband is becoming distant from her. She has her daughter and that is basically it. She seems to stay home for the most part and talks to a neighbor whom she does not really see. It is first through food and then through advice from Saajan that she tries reconnecting with her husband, but simply performing her wifely duties mean little to him. Ila starts to wonder whether it is even worth it to recapture what she had…or even if she had it at all. And she has to reevaluate what her worth is to herself. Saajan, meanwhile, is having a hard time coming to terms with his feelings of being an old curmudgeon. He keeps to himself at work and pushes away his neighbors, but occasionally gazes longingly at the family across from him while they are eating dinner. Not creepy at all. It is only after remembering his wife during his correspondence with Ila that he even visits her grave. While his letters to Ila get more personal as the story goes on, he always keeps making observations and waxing philosophical about how Mumbai is changing and leaving him behind. By opening up to Ila’s attempt to reach out to him, he also is gradually more willing to open up to Shaikh, who has been desperate to become his friend and protege.
Directed by a man who had spent fifteen years away from India, there is a sense of wistfulness for a time that one may not have appreciated enough. In a world of texting, this movie is about two people writing letters to each other…even if the movie focuses more on the reading than the writing. Saajan sees people who have little respect for anything, and a world where tradition has given way to routine. Ila feels absolutely invisible in this present and begins to wonder if an uncertain future of unknown possibilities elsewhere is better than what lies ahead for her in Mumbai. Shaikh, however, is all optimistic. Running away from an almost nonexistent past, he creates a present for himself and is always looking towards the future. Perhaps Saajan’s opening up to Shaikh is his way of acknowledging that the future of India actually is bright for other good people, even if it has no room for him personally.
One element that is subtle, but sometimes noticeable, is how the characters connect with either each other or other people without even trying. When Ila talks about her neighbor staring at the ceiling all day, Saajan notices the fan above him. The movie has them swat at bugs at the same time. When Saajan hears about a woman who committed suicide, he worries that it may be Ila. These are easily noticeable examples, but one completely passed me by until I listened to the commentary. Apparently, every time that Saajan is on a train going anywhere, Ila’s husband is somewhere in the same carriage. Ila and Saajan were always closer than they realized. What could this mean? Could it mean that lonely Saajan is merely the future of Ila’s distant husband? And if that is so, what of Ila?
At once subtly funny and sad, this low-key drama about reaching out to whomever and finding someone is a real treat.
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