The Lunchbox (Dabba)

Irrfan Khan reads his fan mail.

Irrfan Khan reads his fan mail.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Lillete Dubey, Nakul Vaid, Bharati Achrekar (voice), Yashvi Puneet Nagar, Denzil Smith, Shruti Bapna, Nasir Khan, Lokesh Raj, Sadashiv Knodaji Pokarkar, Aarti Rathod, Krishna Bai, Raj Rishi More, Santosh Kumar Chauraslya, Swapnil Sinha, Baaburao Sankpal. Directed by Ritesh Batra

There is something about human nature that demands connection. We need to have it almost as much as we need to eat and drink. Without it, we wither away like a flower that receives no water. That connection must be genuine, too – it is far too easy to be alone in a crowd.

Ila (Kaur) diligently prepares lunch for her husband Rajeev (Vaid). She gets advice on how to make her meal more delicious from her Auntie (Achrekar) who lives upstairs and helpfully sends spices down in a basket through the kitchen window, a kind of makeshift dumbwaiter. Every afternoon, a dabbawallah picks up her lunch, compactly stored in aluminum containers stacked in a canvas bag, and delivers it to her husband’s office. In Mumbai, millions of these lunches are delivered each day from homes and restaurants. Researchers from Harvard University once observed and analyzed their system and discovered that only one in a million deliveries ever went to the wrong address.

My savvy readers can guess where this is going. Ila’s lunch is mis-delivered to the office of Saajan Fernandes, a government bureaucrat who is getting ready to retire. He’s kind of a prickly sort and has been since his wife passed away. Shaikh (Siddiqui), a young go-getter, has been tapped to replace him and is eager to be trained in the job. Shaikh is a bit of a butt-kisser and this irritates Saajan terribly, so he finds ways of avoiding his overeager replacement.

The lunch he receives from Ila is delicious – much more so than the bland and lifeless crap he normally gets from the local restaurant. Saajan devours the entire contents of the lunchbox and sends it back empty to Ila who is pleased. Rajeev almost never eats all of the lunch she sends him, returning part or sometimes all of it. Thinking she has pleased her husband, she makes herself look as pretty as she can (which is dang beautiful indeed) and waits for him to come home.

To her dismay, when he returns home it’s the same thing – a cold distance between him and his desultory response to her questions about the meal make it clear he hadn’t eaten a morsel of it. Puzzled, she sends her next lunchbox out with a note hidden in the naan bread. Saajan finds the note and is intrigued, responding back. Soon the two are corresponding back and forth, their anonymity allowing them to be more confessional than they would normally be. These two lonely people – Saajan alone without company, Ila in a loveless marriage – form an unexpected bond.

In fact, loneliness is a theme in the movie. All three of the main characters – while Shaikh is preparing to get married, he is an orphan who has no family at all – are lonely in some way. It is the communication between Saajan and Ila that transforms the three of them. We can see the anonymous messages left with the naan as a kind of metaphor for modern social media, how we as a society have become more dependent on anonymous faceless communication with people we don’t know on Facebook and services like it, sharing intimate things about our lives with people we’ve never been in the same continent with. It is a fascinating phenomenon when you think about it and speaks to our own need for communication and connection more eloquently than anything I could possibly write.

Khan is one of India’s most respected and beloved actors, having made something of a splash here in this country as well, albeit mainly in supporting roles. Here you get to see him at his best; his eyes communicate his misery and loneliness even though he demonstrates great compassion through all his grumpy exterior. It really is an amazing performance and were he a western actor, this movie would undoubtedly have been released in the fall for Oscar consideration. Still, perhaps someone will take notice and we will get to see more of this wonderful actor.

Kaur has been nominated for acting awards for her performance here which stands up even with Khan at his best, which is saying something. Not only is she a spectacular beauty, she manages to convey the stress of her situation through tired eyes. She manages to be a loving mother to her daughter and a loving daughter to her mother (Dubey) even as Ila’s father (N. Khan) is dying of lung cancer. It’s an affecting performance.

Granted the plot is essentially light and fluffy, but then remember this is the country of Bollywood and light and fluffy entertainment is really their hallmark, but there is depth here that likewise reminds us that this is also the country that produced Satyajit Ray. While this isn’t quite to the standards of that master’s work, it does serve to remind us that like Indian cuisine, Indian cinema can have unexpected moments that make us re-evaluate our opinions of what it is we’re consuming. This is truly a film worth seeking out if you can.

REASONS TO GO: Sexy but not overtly so. Kaur is absolutely gorgeous and both she and Khan provide moving performances. The food looks really yummy!

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat lightweight. The ending was ambiguous which may be unsatisfying for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  The tone and material may be a bit too adult for small children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Irrfan Khan, one of India’s most respected actors, is best-known in the U.S. for his appearances in The Amazing Spider-Man and Life of Pi.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Same Time, Next Year

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Oculus

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One thought on “The Lunchbox (Dabba)

  1. Great work! I agree, I really enjoyed this and Khan’s performance was definitely among the top strengths. A definite treat.

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