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The Lunchbox film review: Sweet aroma

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I had heard about The Lunchbox – it came highly recommended by the one and only Mayouie – and how it’s based in vibrant Mumbai, how it revolves around the dear Indian cuisine that plays on smell and taste as carriers of emotions, and how it boasts trains transporting dabbawallas and lunchboxes. That was enough to get me hooked before getting started.

Sure enough, as soon as I was done watching, I was left pondering on the connection between time and emotions manifested via delicious dishes, and couldn’t resist watching the film all over again hours later. This is one of the best motion pictures I’ve seen in a long time – if you’ve developed a love affair for the emotional dynamics and the glorious Indian setting in the subplots of The Darjeeling Limited, you’ll probably find yourself mesmerized like I have.

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In hustle-bustle Mumbai, a widowed government worker, Saajan, has let endless paperwork drown him over the span of 35 years of public service. In a parallel yet approaching track, a young, beautiful housewife, Ila, attempts to win her husband back after growing doubts that his lack of interest in her has led him to have an affair – and what better way than to enhance her culinary skills and hope for his pleasantly satisfied appetite to drag him back home?

Amidst the world-renowned lunchbox transportation system, Ila’s endless efforts, with the invaluable aide of old neighbor Auntie – whom we never see but still get to know quiet well – lands on Saajan’s desk instead of her husband’s. From that point onwards, they begin exchanging hand-written letters that establish an intimate relationship that lacks almost all of the givens you would expect for an encounter to take place. Throughout the film, we find ourselves exploring and fundamentally questioning, time and life, emotions via hand-written messages and hand-cooked meals, and snapping out of the routines life attempts to suck you into. Absolutely brilliant.

If you don’t like spoilers, you can stop reading now.

Proxy relationships

The connections between the characters is just phenomenal. It makes us question the foundations of what make and define the various relationships. Ila and Saajan never met – they were never even in the same frame (even when they overlapped at a restaurant). Yet, the basis of their strengthening relationship had nothing to do with seeing each other, feeling each other, or even hearing one another. They had a string of proxies, between letters written and read, and cooking tasted and smelled, that tied them together…and very tightly so.

still-10Even more significant, is Ila’s relationship with Auntie, whom we’ve never seen. In fact, we as viewers have established a connection with the main characters when we don’t even live in the same world. And on top of that, we share Ila’s love and respect to Auntie when we’ve only heard her voice as she enlightens us with her assertive and experienced advice. And we learn her story from part of a letter Ila wrote to Saajan when she talked about her dying husband – how many dots did we just connect there?

Auntie was the queen of proxies. She could tell that there’s a spice missing just from the smell that reaches her upstairs. She hears a specific tone in the whistle from the pot and can tell that the food is ready. She can even tell when Ila’s about to add too much of the missing spice to the dish – although that is a bit more telepathic than anything else, which is also an ongoing theme.

In response to Ila’s stories, Saajan begins to remember his late wife. Can you still have a relationship with a person who’s gone? In Saajan’s case, old, cheesy comedy shows reminded him dearly of his wife, and he ends up watching the entire series when he doesn’t enjoy it, just like when his wife used to watch them. He even recalls seeing her reflection off the screen as he stood at the balcony with a direct line of sight towards her…just like he is doing years later. Unlike traditional relationships, proxy connections can actually outlive the people connected.

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We see it again with Ila’s mom, who led a miserable life dealing with Ila’s father, and ended up so poor, she sold their TV just to stay afloat. Ila’s father never directly appears, but instead we see his body – without his face – from outside of the room, being wrapped in sheets. In fact, when Ila got the call with the news that her dad had passed away, she had gone off the screen, and all what was left was her voice, and the sound of her tears.

When Ila’s mother expresses her “disgust” in the routine she followed for her husband, when she had no feelings for him, Ila stops her nagging and completely freezes; is that exactly what I’m doing? Is this the road I’m in, and is this going to be my end? It was only logical for Ila to take her daughter and follow the Dabbawallas to Saajan’s office in search for her escape.

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We ourselves, as an audience, establish a connection with Saajan’s meal, through his reaction to it. The first thing he does is smell the food to know that it’s not from the same people, and that it’s something different, perhaps special.

A final proxy relationship is a lot closer to home, and that is Saajan and Ila’s somewhat childish obsession with Bhutan, when they know absolutely nothing about it. We always dream of places we’re in love with, when the more we know about it, the more real it gets, the less fantastical it becomes. But obviously, Bhutan represented much more than an “affordable” location – it was a ticket to break free from everything around them.

Time expiring, and restarting

Time was an ongoing theme through the entire film, and fit smoothly within the grand scheme of things.

The dynamic begins with the evident contrast in age between old, retiring Saajan and young, aspirational Sheikh. Not only are their starting points opposite, but their tracks are contrary to each other. You can see Saajan growing throughout the film, gaining responsibility and learning from his mistakes, especially at the end when he is fully installed at the desk, and looks to have grown a handful of years in very little time.

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Saajan, on the other hand, has always been old, but was getting younger and younger as he started to break the routine and open up with thoughtful and emotional exchanges. Perhaps his sad and sudden realization in his bathroom as he was about to meet Ila for the first time arguably changes his unnatural flow from old to young, but I would argue that this realization only highlights how he had forgotten his age because of how young his heart has become. And with the exception of that scene, he seemed younger and younger.

And while Saajan was slowly approaching the end of his life, Sheikh was at such a high tempo, that he would cut up vegetables on the train to save time in preparing the meals he shares with his new wife.

And time is also tied to memories, and everything from the past, as well as after death and in the future. That’s why Saajan’s constant return to his late wife was significant. Her time stopped, and so did he when he fit perfectly within the old gears of Indian bureaucracy. But his new relationship with Ila reignited time and he started moving, which is when he began to realize the growing distance between himself and his wife. After all, she’s still stuck with the old sitcoms and sitting on the same sofa, but he’s in fact – at least contemplating – moving places.

Ila, however, was a reflection of time over a macro level – spanning over the years that cover her old neighbor Auntie, to her mother, all the way to her young school girl daughter. And while Ila’s mom is constantly miserable, and unable to face her problems, Ila was about to complete the “routine”, but broke it, which promises a bright life for her young daughter.

It was a bit of a wake up call at times when the topic of death surfaced. It all started with Auntie’s husband, who woke up from a coma and has for 15 years stared at a rotating fan. Of all moving things around us, the fan runs a never ending course of circles. It has no end, and while it’s always moving, it’s fixed in its place and doesn’t develop over time. But just like everything around us, it will one day stop spinning. It will die. When Ila told that story in an exchange with Saajan, he looked up to the fan in the diner, and it actually stopped – just like the one with Auntie’s husband – in an apparent fear of death. It was a realization that his fan can stop any minute, but thankfully, he overcame the scare and went back to the letter as the fan restarted.

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Functional vs emotional food

The lunchbox was the carrier of the food, the messages, and the connection between Saajan and Ila (as well as millions of couples throughout the city). The act of food preparation within itself was an integral part of the relationship between the two.

Ila’s husband never noticed that his lunchbox carried someone else’s food – that’s how much of a disconnect there is between the married couple. And even Auntie recognized the grave blasphemy of not distinguishing between his wife’s aroma and someone else’s; she said that even if her husband were to receive Ila’s first letter by mistake, that would be even better because he’s mistaken to not have noticed that this was her dish to start with.

Even Saajan, surprised at the deliciousness of the food, asked “who” cooked at the eatery responsible for feeding him. Because when there’s an emotional connection established, it’s about who, not what dish or how. In fact, Ila’s cooking was outstanding to the point that Sheikh got physically close to Saajan and remarked that he tasted the food just by smelling it.

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Food is an emotional carrier, and the taste, smell and sight and texture of the food conveys feelings better than anything else. But it could also boast functional benefits, such as Ila’s punishment of Saajan’s after he branded her first delivery “too salty”. And when Saajan heard of a women who had killed herself and thought for a second that it might’ve been Ila, he anxiously awaited the food and, when it arrived, he smelled it and calmed doing knowing that Ila is alive and well.

“Soak five almonds every night, and then eat them in the morning to strengthen memory” advised Auntie.

The wrong train can take you to the right station

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The Lunchbox is an absolute masterpiece. It was carved to perfection with enough levels to give it a a never ending depth, all seamlessly fitting in together. It featured moving pauses and loud silences. It takes seemingly isolated topics and blends them all together so that you can consume your senses and occupy your thoughts, but comfortably so. What fascinates me the most is the astute attention to detail, and the smooth flow from beginning to end.

As an addict of food, especially those dishes coming out of India, I was massively rewarded.

One comment on “The Lunchbox film review: Sweet aroma

  1. Neetish

    Amazing,you remind me every scene of the movie. Now i am going to rewatch the movie. One of my favourite movie. Thanks sir for this Nice article.

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