First scatter some chilli on the fried vegetables, then stir the lentils and turn over the chapatti (flat bread) on a gas flame. It takes Ila (Nimrat Kaur) less than a minute to fill the home-cooked lunch for her husband Rajiv in a dabba, the metallic Indian version of a lunch box, store it in a cloth bag, adjust her hair and run to the door where a dabbawalla is already waiting. As one of 5,000 delivery men in Mumbai, his job is to collect 200,000 lunch boxes daily from all over the city and to take them by bicycle, rickshaw, bus and train from the far-away suburbs to the office high-rises in central Mumbai. Who wants to eat sloppy curries at a restaurant when they can also indulge in the tasty food cooked by their wives or mothers? No one in India, that's for sure. Like thousands of wives, Ila thus patiently slaves away in the kitchen, so that her husband Rajiv needn't starve in his job.
There is a problem, however, with Ila's curries: Rajiv doesn't care about his food nor for Ila. In order to spice up their love life, despite all its vicissitudes, Ila continues to put her heart and soul into her cooking. But as she finally succeeds in perfecting a particular dish, the dabbawalla makes a mistake: Instead of being delivered to her husband, Ila's lunch box ends up on the desk of Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan), a lonely widower who is about to retire and knows neither friends nor happiness. Brought back to life by Ila's sometimes spicy, sometimes salty curries, the unlikely pair start writing letters which are delivered through the lunch box. As they are growing constantly closer, they start hatching a plan to elope to Bhutan together. But can this lunch box love between a retired widower and a young married woman have a future at all?
What could easily turn into a sugary romance, preserves a tender balance between daily life and great emotions, family ties and unconventional love, thanks to director Ritesh Batra, who also wrote the script of The Lunchbox (original title “dabba”; ed.). In his film you won't find colourfully sequinned saris, wild dance shows or cheesy love scenes as you might know them from the usual Bollywood flick. Nor does The Lunchbox depend on folkloristic Indian tinsel like Darjeeling Limited (2007) or dark images of poverty and violence as seen in Slumdog Millionaire (2008). On the contrary, Ila and Saajan both belong to Mumbai's middle classes, leading a steady life between work and family, albeit not being particularly happy. The lunch box, then, is a sudden yet welcome means to escape from the daily grind. The imagery of the film is just as subdued as the story with muted colours and silent notes prevailing, such as when Saajan sits in his office or Ila bustles around her kitchen.
Apart from the outstanding performance of protagonists Nimrat Kaur and Irrfahn Khan, recently seen in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and Life of Pi (2012), Mumbai's dabbawallas are the secret stars of the film. Started in 1880, their lunch box system is one of the most sophisticated logistics undertakings of the 21st century, although most dabbawallas are illiterate or only semi-literate. That is why the lunch boxes are marked using alphanumerical colour codes in order to clearly identify both sender and recipient. Although there are no exact figures, their error rate is so incredibly low that it has given rise to an urban myth according to which only one in eight million lunch boxes ever goes astray.
The usual flashy Bollywood film? think twice
Originally from Mumbai, Ritesh Batra planned to shoot a documentary about the thrifty dabbawallas before the idea for a feature film struck him. The quiet lightness of his film has not only convinced Indian cinema goers, but also European film producers and critics: Financed by several Bollywood companies, The Lunchbox is also an Indian-French-German-American co-production and was equally produced by Asap Films, the Centre National du Cinéma and arte France Cinéma in France, rohfilm and the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg in Germany and Cine Mosaic in the USA.
European film critics are equally enchanted. After an “honourable jury mention” at the International Film Festival Cinemart in Rotterdam, Batra went on to present his script in 2012 at the Berlinale Talent Project Market and the Torino Film Lab, before winning the Grand Rail d'or (Critics' Week Viewers' Choice Award; ed.) at Cannes Film Festival. Yet when The Lunchbox failed to bag an Oscar nomination as best foreign feature film, this caused great uproar in the Indian and international press. But although not everything seems to be running like clockwork, Ritesh Batra has already done a lot to get the Indo-European film flirtation going.
This can only be to the advantage of both sides. Especially in Europe, it won't hurt to look at India with fresh eyes, beyond glamour, finance CEOs and religiously motivated violence, and to get involved in an utterly undramatic love story. You might find this love at the bottom of a lunch box or in multilateral film promotion schemes, but will it be happy? Batra chooses an open end to his film, but a true dabbawalla is more likely to be able to read its future from the leftovers in the lunch box. Saajan, for his part, regularly empties his box until the last grain of rice. If you take visitors' numbers as an indicator, European cinema-goers might well be on their way to declaring Indian curries to be their favourite new dish.