A Synchronous Brew of Spice, Song, and Memory: Unpacking the Transgressive Layers of Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox
This year, The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra, 2013) celebrates the tenth anniversary of its initial release. Starring Nimrat Kaur, Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, this under-appreciated work of Indian indie cinema deserves rediscovery through a celebration of its delicate, yet exquisite, blend of intricate layers. There is a peculiarly sharp cinematography and investment in the gravity of gazes, an interesting and intriguing engagement with music (noise, to be more accurate), and a thrilling blend of character and story that is thoroughly absorbed into a reconstructive mapping of the cityscape of Mumbai through intense acts of collective nostalgia. All these strands brew together through the permeable tiers of a lunchbox-like structure that this essay will unpack.
Navigating the piquancy of Mumbai
The Lunchbox explores the spaces of Mumbai by following the journey of a dabba (lunchbox) and those whose lives intersect as the tiers of this dabba unravel. The film itself recalls the Harvard study on dabbawalas (individuals who deliver lunchboxes across Mumbai) conducted by Stefan H. Thomke and Mona Sinha 1 that explains the meticulous functioning of a non-western chain of mechanics which make possible the elaborate deliveries of lunchboxes across the city. The Lunchbox explores Mumbai’s dabbawala delivery system, renowned for its precision and simplicity, and dabbawalas become the story’s coincidental facilitators. It is through them that the anomaly of a wrong delivery (the probability of which is roughly one in six million!) magically entwines and drastically alters Ila and Saajan’s narratives.
Inextricably interwoven with the film’s individual narratives are the politics of space(s) within the city of Mumbai. Batra’s film moves across different areas of Mumbai, notably Bandra, Dongri, and Matunga, along with institutionalized spaces such as a railway station, an office, and a cemetery. Nooks and corners of intimate home spaces are intriguingly, yet non-invasively entered, as we see central characters in their bedrooms, dining rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms. Navigating via diverse means of transport — characters travel by foot, bus, train, scooter, taxi, and autorickshaw — the film is a thoughtful examination of the city’s landscape, that which remains within it, and all that once belonged to it. Saajan, for instance, peeks his head out from an autorickshaw and shares with Ila how the old houses of his friends that he once played with have vanished, along with his old school. But this is followed by a list of structures and buildings that remain, like the old post office, and the hospital where he was born and his family died. Characters in The Lunchbox negotiate the liminal in-betweenness that constitutes not only the realm of the private, but the public sphere as well.
The film’s setting is also the spatiotemporal realm of Mumbai, precisely in the early 2010s, expressed through the deliberate nuances of noise and the intricacies they nurture. The frames within which Ila, Saajan, and Shaikh are positioned are acutely tempered, thoroughly infused with textures of sound that flavourfully evoke the feel of a specific place at a specific time. Promising the delivery of an intimate experience to the spectator, just as the dabbawalas guarantee delivery of lunchboxes across the entirety of Mumbai, from the very onset of the film, there is a distinct enunciation of the cityscape’s aesthetic. We discover the chuffing engines of Bombay local trains, loud clusters of cooing pigeons, the clanking metal of a container over the dabbawalas’ head, whistles of a pressure cooker, clattering keyboards in an office, and many other minute, yet expressive, noises. These auditory layers, thoroughly integrated into the film’s soundscape, coalesce into an impactful cluster that renders insignificant Bollywood movie songs that attempt to introduce or describe cities.
The music in the film imbues distinct, diverse, and deliciously complex intertextual echoes that marinate The Lunchbox. The dabbawalas sing “Dnyanoba Mauli Tukaram,” a devotional recitation/incantation that is accompanied by uplifting synchronous clapping beats which layers the dense Marathi musical culture into the narrative. There are songs from the 1991 film Saajan (Lawrence D’Souza), also the name of Irrfan Khan’s character, that Ila hears through Deshpande auntie’s cassette while Saajan listens to a local children’s performance on the train 2 . Finally, there is the title track from the sitcom Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (1984), which Saajan’s wife used to record on tapes and repeatedly watch, and that he rewatches, nostalgically remembering her laughter. All of these musical evocations are connected to the city in different ways, whether as evocations of Marathi poets from past centuries, or as entertainment media that was either filmed or set in Mumbai, elaborately colouring the 1980s and ’90s. The deliberate embroidering of such tones in The Lunchbox creates a singular navigation of the city, as it is specifically the characters’ experiences that we are empathetically joined with through these subtle, yet significant, aural rhythms.
Occupancy of space within the landscape of this congested city is further explored through the liminal realm of the dead who still own and occupy their sphere of a burial plot, and in this way are literally planted within the city. Saajan shares with Ila the unavailability of a horizontal burial plot for himself that had been available when his wife died. The lack of space creates a deep sense of distaste and unease. An individual is forced to ceaselessly stand, not only while they are alive and travelling within overcrowded trains and buses, but even in their death, through entombing within vertical graves. As well, a significant grave is subversively referenced at the beginning of the film when Deshpande auntie mentions to Ila that good food would lead to Ila’s husband constructing a Taj Mahal for her. In response, Ila points out that the Taj Mahal is a mazar (tomb). The site of the monument, celebrated for its grandeur and beauty in dominant discourse, is exposed to what it essentially is: a polished cadaver of patriarchal ideology.
The Lunchbox in no way romanticises Indian spaces, but nor does it portray an utterly desolate sphere. The spatial layout is traversed intimately, yet earnestly, by each of the movie’s central characters as they continually strive to balance themselves amongst the constant sways of the journey they are immersed in. Unlike the picturesque gaze of a much better known film set in Mumbai, Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008), which presents the stereotypical image of a poverty-stricken India in general, and Mumbai in particular, The Lunchbox explores the city of Mumbai in a nuanced and utterly non-exploitative way.
Relationships marinated in an intimate eccentricity
Beyond the spatial dynamics of the city, the film also maps, in thorough detail, the consequences of the failure of its excessively systematised and mechanised structures. The rare glitch in the delivery system of the dabbawalas propels the puncturing of the patriarchal institution of marriage. There are four marriages in the movie that are intimately probed and all of them expose different problems that the characters face and eventually overcome. Ila’s husband Rajeev cheats on her, and she eventually leaves. Saajan is much closer to his wife following her death. Shaikh and Meherunissa get married, but their situation remains utterly removed from the socially acceptable. Finally, Ila’s parents are bound in a traditional marriage until her father dies, which brings immediate feelings of relief to her mother, expressed in the form of immense hunger and a craving for parathas (Indian flatbread). Thus, The Lunchbox exquisitely leaps beyond the socially sanctioned mould of the normative by initiating possibilities of exploring, expressing, and experiencing individualism for its characters.
For Ila and Saajan, intimacy brews through a collaborative contemplation, a peculiar bartering of thoughts and memories, and an anomalous lunchbox that carries so much more than a mere scrumptious meal. Further, Ila’s equation with her neighbour, Deshpande auntie, who remains off-screen throughout, is the only proximate bond of friendship or companionship that she shares, much like the one we see initiating between Saajan and Shaikh, colleagues who become much more. What’s more, the dead — for Ila, her brother, and for Saajan, his wife — continue to haunt the characters by making them see that which is forced to remain below the surface in the everyday lives of “normal” people, whether it be the gravity that graves hold or the authority within suicide. Thus, distorting and destabilizing dominant ideologies, The Lunchbox proves the accuracy of Shaikh’s adage — sometimes, even the wrong train can get you to the right station.
Looking beyond and remembering together
Children, through their deviant manner of looking and observing, play a significant role in this movie. The curious gazes of Ila’s daughter, Yashvi, and the young girl in Saajan’s neighbourhood expose and highlight the adult characters’ vulnerabilities in varied ways. Yashvi, in particular, often critically regards the people surrounding her. Of great importance is the scene in which she looks up at Ila’s mother, who shows her internalized patriarchal mentality by wanting financial support only from her son. Performing the role of punctuation marks within the film, such moments of gazing asks the spectator to stop and note what is occurring.
Yashvi’s powerful gaze
At the beginning of the movie, in its first close-up, Yashvi is blindfolded by a necktie, a metaphorical representation of oppressive social regulation. Her transgressive journey, within the seemingly innocent realm of childhood, reaches the point where Ila helps her remove the blindfold that Yashvi imitatively uses on her doll. Here, aberrant behaviour brews through the non-normative marriage game she learns about from a much more aware and present Ila, who shares with her daughter memories of her now-dead brother. Additionally, Yashvi contributes significantly to Ila’s eventual decision to leave by becoming the means for her mother’s awareness of an alternative sphere like Bhutan. The Lunchbox initiates a different mechanism of observing and looking, negating the dominant flaneur-like gaze prevalent in mainstream productions.
Yashvi struggles with the necktie (blindfold)
Further, the dabba in The Lunchbox sneaks within its tiers epistolary narratives of chitthis (letters) that coalesce memories, musings, and so much more on a mere piece of paper. The characters, Ila, Saajan, and Shaikh engage in an intimate form of collaborative communication by sharing, not just food, but parts of themselves, parts up until then left unexpressed, with breathtaking ease. The film achieves the interweaving of these three characters and their trajectories through their acts of remembering together, because, as Saajan mentions, things are forgotten if we have no one to tell them to and share them with. On one hand, Shaikh mischievously invents the memories he tells Saajan, while Saajan recollects his wife’s laughter, the television reflecting when he used to glance back through the window in days past, in the midst of exchanging letters with Ila. Meanwhile, Ila rummages through her old things to discover a diary of recipes written by her nani (maternal grandmother), sharing this with Saajan by actually preparing the recipe and sending some to him.
Through these and other moments, Saajan and Ila’s communication moves beyond the realm of the epistolary. Transgressing spatiotemporal mechanics, the film magically creates a synchrony between them as the experiences they share in the course of their narrative become literal. This is clearest when Ila recalls, through her letter to Saajan, the incident of Deshpande auntie’s husband and the fan he lives his life staring at. The exact moment when the fan treacherously stops spinning in Ila’s remembrance, showcased by her voice-over in the film, the fan over Saajan’s head in the canteen stops working as he reads, while the canteen’s other fans continue to work perfectly. This is something he distinctly registers, because, in the very next moment, when the fan in Ila’s story starts working again, saving Deshpande uncle’s life, so does the one over Saajan, right on cue. These related shots collaborate in the construction of a peculiar reality where the disguise of coincidence falls short as an explanation or an excuse. Memories, unravelled in the chitthi that accompanies Saajan’s dabba and Ila’s chai (tea), are densely marinated with a flavourful tinge of experience that they delve into, together. Batra’s film judiciously uses the cinematic medium, substantiating a simultaneous connection established between his characters through an empathy that is not just an emotion, but a series of encounters.
Saajan notices the fan above him has stopped
A tasteful palate that punctures patriarchy
Diverse textures, flavours, and aromatic spices are imbued within the various tiers of The Lunchbox. The spectator witnesses Ila’s elaborate process of preparing a meal in her kitchen accompanied by an invisible yet almost omniscient Deshpande auntie, whose keen sense of smell guides Ila. Beyond infusing Ila and Saajan’s interaction with delightful Indian flavours, food is also a means of exploring minute peculiarities that initiate a disruptive queerness that thwarts patriarchal normalcy. This is established through an adorable and hilarious episode that tells the story of how “important” documents start smelling like vegetables! Nearly halfway through the narrative, Saajan notices Shaikh’s chopping vegetables in his briefcase, which also contains office files, within the very congested space of the train in order to ease the process of cooking food at home. Performing domestic duties traditionally gendered as female, Shaikh shares with Saajan the schedule of his day while preparing the meal, then waits for his partner, and they eat together. Scenes such as this mince the dominant discourse even more finely than Shaikh can slice his vegetables.
Saajan watches Shaikh chop vegetables on his briefcase
Negotiating existential dread
Suicide, the paradoxical act of asserting the self by rupturing the body into death, is explored in the film through the traumatizing realm of the domestic. The news of a mother committing suicide by jumping from the terrace of a tall building with her young daughter constructs a close parallel for Ila, who is similarly smothered by patriarchal dictates. This parallel is exquisitely underscored when Saajan, on his way to work, trapped in immense traffic due to the tragic demise, asks his autorickshaw driver the name of the woman who jumped, suddenly frantic and worried that it might be Ila. In Ila’s introspective letter following this news, that she also hears on the radio, she reflects on the specific actions that must have preceded the tragedy, such as removing her jewellery the night before, listening to the questions her tiny child must have asked on the way to the terrace, and feeling gut-wrenching fear as she stood on the ledge. What’s more, resembling Ila’s thoughts precisely, we see these actions being performed by her with her daughter. It is this complex, overwhelming existential dread that synchronously generates power for the constant and consistent circularity of the fan that Deshpande auntie’s husband lives his life staring at. Visible even in the pattern of domestic nurture that routinely imprisons Ila’s mother, a gut-wrenching hollowness festers through her inability to do anything apart from feeding her ill husband with medicine and food. The manner in which these exhausting patterns of life, and poignant thoughts of ending it, are dealt with is central to the narrative.
The Sisyphean everyday is negotiated in The Lunchbox through the turbulence associated with the constant sway of the Bombay local, within which the entire city rocks back and forth. A prime example occurs when Saajan narrates to Ila the humorous scene he shared with a fellow passenger on the train: whilst standing amidst a crowded set of people, he feels a pestering touch, awkward and inappropriate, yet when he musters up the courage to look down, he discovers that it was a file in another man’s grip that had been chafing against him unintentionally because of the bumpy transport. Observing the situation is another traveller, an elderly woman, whom Saajan shares a smile with through the peculiar hilarity of the situation. Silly and synchronously simple, it holds the ability to puncture monotony, not just for Saajan and the old woman, but for Ila as well, who he shares the experience with through his letter. In this manner, the film embroiders and explores delicately intricate events and objects with nuance, constructing a refreshing landscape the characters experience through their coincidental palimpsestic conglomerations.
The Lunchbox is an intense experience that literally provides food for thought. This essay analyzes the film as an unravelling of all that which ferments within the various layers of a desi dabba (Indian lunchbox). Inconclusive in its ending, yet something that one relishes throughout, the narrative is deliciously constructed, in which a vertical jump to death that Ila briefly ponders is eventually transfigured into a horizontal shift to Bhutan. While we are left wondering if Saajan reaches Ila before she leaves Mumbai, we are sure that Ila will leave with her daughter and she will take control over her life, with or without Saajan. The Lunchbox explores intimacy, emotion, Indian food, and Mumbai, all in an utterly subversive manner, dismembering the hollow normative code established by dominant patriarchal society. Instability, which is typically condemned, is utterly celebrated in this movie, whether it be through the failure of systematic delivery mechanisms, the sway of the Bombay local, or the act of remembering collectively.
- Stefan H. Thomke and Mona Sinha. “The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time.” Harvard Business School Case 610-059, February 2010. (Revised January 2013.) ↩
- The plot of Saajan (Lawrence D’Souza, 1991), one of the most popular Indian films of its era, also revolved around an exchange of letters between characters who did not know each other by sight. ↩