Imagine Irrfan Khan working in a swank multinational insurance firm, clad in a snazzy Italian style suit and eating risotto. Imagine Nawazuddin Siddiqui riding a Hayabusa to Dongri and Nimrat Kaur carrying Louis Vuitton bags while she goes visiting her ailing middle aged father and depressed mom. This is what The Lunchbox (TLB) would have been with Karan Johar directing it! Thankfully it is not our KJ  but Ritesh Batra who directs this film and leaves us hungering for more. KJ though is one of the many ‘presenters’ of the film.

It is very easy to confide in a stranger, much easier than confiding in a friend who may judge you or worse, offer you loads of advice!……

Ila (Nimrat) is a homemaker who tirelessly cooks, cleans, cares and hopes to rekindle the romance in her stagnant marriage with new spices and recipes. Aunty, her upstairs neighbour and omnipotent presence, is just a voice through the kitchen window when they are not exchanging vegetables and spices in the age old tradition of a wicket basket hung from a rope outside the window! 

Rajeev (Nakul Vaid) is Ila’s busy husband who is either at work or on his phone. He is distantly courteous with his wife and does not seem to notice her efforts either in the kitchen or bedroom. Ila’s mornings are spent getting her shy young daughter ready for school and then preparing new dishes (mostly according to Aunty’s instructions) for her husband’s lunch. The famous dabbawallas of Mumbai carry the lunchbox to and fro, while Ila waits on tenterhooks to see whether the contents of the box have been fully consumed or not. 

One afternoon, the lunchbox lovingly packed by Ila, reaches Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) instead of Rajeev. Saajan is a soon-to-take-early-retirement, semi taciturn widower who works mechanically and lives the same way. He has no friends at work or in his Catholic Bandra neighbourhood. His lunch comes from the neighbouring eatery which specializes in unimaginative food. The fragrance and taste of Ila’s home cooked meal brings a smile to his face. And as mistaken lunchbox keeps arriving at his desk, filled daily with delectable food and notes from Ila, we see Saajan changing. Aslam Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the ingratiating eager beaver who is slated to take over Saajan’s role in the company slowly manages to endear himself to the man who spent 35 years without making a single friend. 

This middle aged man who gets a new lease of life and the much younger woman who is drawn to him through letters – do they fall in love and manage to create a life for themselves? TLB is not so much a love story as it is a travel tale. The characters are on journeys to find – hope, love, meaning, fulfillment, freedom, excitement and sometimes just a chance to find themselves.

It would be unkind to call the performances brilliant, because words can barely describe the nuances brought about in this film. Irrfan, always understated, delivers a master stroke as Saajan Fernandes, whose silences speak as much as his lines. Nawazuddin who is now a must have in good cinema, does more than justice to his role as Aslam Shaikh. But the one you cannot turn your eyes away from is Nimrat. Theatre lovers would have seen and loved her in Bombay Talkies and Baghdad Wedding. Others would find it difficult to equate this simple housewife to the girl with smiley eyes licking her fingers in the Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk ad. Whether she is cooking, confiding in Aunty or breaking her heart, Nimrat achieves perfection in every frame. Her loneliness within the family structure is as heartrending as her dreams to create something beautiful for herself, away from it all. Hats off to the director for maintaining the sanctity of the film and not going over the top in any way. A very special mention of the food styling team – they made every dish leap out of the screen into our senses. I so wanted every bit of the bhindi and paneer and was even tempted to try the aubergine which I dislike!

This film surely deserved a place in the Oscars!


Copyright © Taraa Vermaa Senguptaa September 2013

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