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The Lunchbox // Dabba (2013)

CRUMBLIES… 5 crumblies

Vibrant Vinay said this one had caused a row. The goodly film folk of India had the option to submit this terrific film – sweet, bittersweet, sad and lovely – for an Oscar. In a moment of voter petulance, they went with a different choice, pissing off themselves, the filmmakers and the filmgoers of India. For it’s a fantastic film, shot through with telling portraits of loneliness and the gentle things that keep our emotional dogs at bay. And it all starts with something I had no idea of: The Lunchbox deliveries of Mumbai…

So, there are moments of documentary to teach you things, but not too many. The workers of southern Asia get their lunches from dabba or tiffin carriers. The lunchboxes (well, tin tiffins) come in several tiers, each with parts of a meal inside. In Mumbai, they can be delivered from home or from a caterer – and get there in a famously effective and efficient delivery system run by dabbawallers. I know! How brilliant is that?

Enter our heroes: Irrfan Khan plays Saajan Fernandes. A widower, nearing early retirement, grumpy, silent, wholly internalized by the cruelties of losing his wife. For this is the story of an isolated man coming back to life… Nimrat Kaur is Ila, a housewife, who prepares her daily tiffin for an indifferent and unfaithful husband.

Then – unheard of in reality – a mistake happens. Ila’s tiffin ends up on Saajan’s desk and he loves it. And they start swapping notes via the tiffin tower. Slowly, delightfully, they do the epistolary thing and get to know and affect their lives. Ila is flattered by the brusque feedback on her food (she takes advice from her Aunty who lives in the flat above), whilst Saajan compliments and starts to come alive again at the interest from this unknown woman. Together they discover sadness – the death of a wife, the disdain of a husband – and new energies come into their repetitive lives.

Oh – and Saajan is in his fifties; Ila in her thirties. You watch the film craving them to meet, watching as the daily messages flip their moods, give them hope and build a kind of love. Age doesn’t really come into it. So add The Lunchbox to the small list of grumpy old man, beautiful young woman films (Mr Morgan’s Last Love (2013) ahoy)…

This is gorgeous stuff. Khan gives a deliciously grouchy performance, softening and gaining new energy . Kaur gives off loneliness whilst – I’m going there – having beauty so entrancing you cannot understand let alone like her husband.

Each has stresses as we get to know them…

Saajan is bothered by a new trainee – Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the blagger Shaikh.  Their scenes are properly funny, Shaikh hassling Saajan for training the older man really doesn’t want to give. He can be irritating, so there’s a small miracle in action as their relationship warms up – pretty much the effect of Ila’s letters.

Ila is facing the impending loss of her father, impoverishment of her mother, loneliness of her young daughter and constant shunning from her husband. An over-familiar scene (she glams up for him one night) is a bit of a duff note, but oh! She gets your sympathies for even trying.  Ila bears all with grace, only giving in to a flash of anger when she and Saajan edge towards a possible meeting. Nimrat Kaur gives all of these scenes a calm, disappointed heart.

Okay. The cinematography makes Mumbai feel helter-skelter and stressful, busy and over-populated, but it also gives us shots of Ila and Saajan caught in their loneliness. She stands alone in her flat; he smokes alone on his balcony each night. That stillness permeates the film and pulls at you. Vibrant Vinay and old Jack flipped between tears and laughter throughout.

There’s so much to enjoy in The Lunchbox and I don’t want to spoil it for you, so let’s just say the performances are terrific, the plot one of meaningful growth and the kind of hope the lonely crave. Will they resolve their personal problems? Will they ever meet? There are echoes of 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) in the letters in the tiffin pot, but The Lunchbox tells its own story.

Find it on Netflix. 

It should’ve won the Oscar.


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