Dir. Ritesh Batra
(A lot has been written about this film, which finally found its way into arthouse cinemas in the US after its successful run on the festival circuit and limited release in India last year. For that reason, I've allowed more spoilers than usual in what I've written below. If you don't want to know how the film ends, don't read this review until after you've seen it. For a most thoughtful and thorough discussion of the movie's themes and narrative metaphors that doesn't explicitly give away the ending, read what Beth had to say about it.)
A chance encounter can change a life. I know someone who married a woman he met on an airplane, in the kismet of arbitrary travel plans and random seat assignments. We are all of us ruled by stochastic interactions, the interplay of chance, the haphazard intersection of our paths through spacetime with the distinct paths of others.
The Lunchbox (Dabba) is a tale of a one-in-a-million encounter and the people it alters: The dabba delivery system of Bombay, so legendarily flawless, makes a mistake, delivers one dabba to one wrong recipient, and connects two lonely people. There is magic in this, just as there seems to be magic in the meeting of one's life partner on a cross-country flight. It is magical that the error links an anxious, unappreciated homemaker, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) with a curmudgeonly, depressed widower, Saajan (Irrfan Khan). If Ila's dabba had mistakenly gone to a clueless young professional just like her husband, or if Saajan had accidentally received a dabba from some other restaurant than the one he had always ordered from, there would be no story. The hand of fate carefully guides Ila's dabba so that Saajan and Ila can find each other across space, and also for our benefit, so we have a movie to watch. That is kismet.
The Lunchbox acknowledges the magic in this setup, by hinting at other metaphysical connections between Saajan and Ila. Twice during the film, when Ila is at home listening to film songs drifting down from her neighbor's apartment, Saajan, riding the Bombay local, hears boys singing the same songs. At another point, Ila and Saajan are shown each batting a fly away at the precise same moment, on opposite sides of the city. And so it the right choice, in the end, for The Lunchbox to remain ambiguous about where Ila and Saajan's connection takes them, because anything concrete would have pierced the veil of that magic.
After the movie, a woman stopped me in the restroom and asked, "Do you think they went to Bhutan together? I do." Likely a significant fraction of the audience was rooting for that outcome. But showing it would have required facing a lot of messy realities that would break The Lunchbox's gentle spell. When Ila and Saajan finally meet, are they attracted to one another? Is it the same kind of attraction on both sides? Will Ila actually leave her husband on the spot? What about their daughter? And just how much older is Saajan than Ila, anyhow? The Lunchbox is right not to address these questions, to remain in its magical space where accidents of fate can bind strangers together on their journey around the sun without regard to bare, troublesome practicalities.
Instead of such muddying complications, The Lunchbox dwells beautifully on human connections. The dour Saajan acquires not only the delicious meals and thoughtful letters of Ila, but also the friendship of his optimistic puppy-dog of an assistant, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, in a performance that bounces like a super-ball off Irrfan Khan's morose tension). This friendship grows so touchingly and organically that it is a more satisfying relationship than the nominally central one between Saajan and Ila. After all, it is more real; unlike an epistolary relationship, the literal, physical closeness of Shaikh and Saajan leaves no space for fantasy. Shaikh's presence is real, irritating, inconvenient - he looks too closely over Saajan's shoulder, juts his head into Saajan's personal space, helps himself to Saajan's lunch - and their friendship grows out of this rocky soil anyhow. The messy realities are dispatched before the two men become close. When Saajan tells Shaikh he has a girlfriend named Ila, the feeling is sweet but also a bit pathetic; the question whether Ila thinks of him as her boyfriend hangs in the air between screen and audience. If Saajan were to tell Ila of a best friend named Shaikh, however, there is no such pestering doubt. And Saajan's first smile of the movie comes while talking to Shaikh, not while reading Ila's letters.
But Saajan is changed by both relationships. For one, he is made to feel young, then old, then young again, until perhaps he comes to realize that he is neither, or both, or that it doesn't really matter, so long as he has not given up human connections entirely. The Lunchbox provides sweet and delicate window into the ways people touch each other, without too much focus on the troublesome details, or how touch also sometimes means hurt. It's a lovely fantasy world to spend a little time in, and you get to choose your own ending.