The Lunch Box

The Lunch Box


Howard Adelman 



The Lunch Box is an Indian movie set in Mumbai that intermixes Hindi with a smattering of English and has absolutely none of the core characteristics of a Bollywood film – dancing and singing, gaiety, a sentimental romantic view of life and, most of all, a patina of rich colour that we associate not only with Bollywood but with India in general. The Lunch Box leans towards the drab. I write “leans” because nothing can take place in India that is not rich, especially in colour, but in this film the richness is saved for the lunch that one wife, Ila, prepares for Vaid, her cold and cut-off indifferent husband. Nimran Kaur plays the role of Ila with exquisite perfection and an ability to convey loneliness and hurt, disappointment and hope, using a small twitch or a slight turn in her lips to express an enormous range of emotions.

There are no dances, but there are songs, particularly the song sung by the men who deliver the lunch boxes throughout the city, the dabbawala, literally “one who comes in a box” for dabba means box and a wala as a suffix is one who holds the box. It is worth the price of the admission ticket alone to see the shots of the men dressed in their white cotton kurta-pyjamas and their white Gandhi caps (topi) cycling or pushing carts even in pouring rain in the late morning collecting and then delivering the hot food in lunch boxes, or, as I learned from a friend who attended the movie with us, in reusable tiffins which hold the hot lunches prepared by the worker’s wives, and then retrieving those same tiffins now emptied of food from their husbands’ places of work and traveling again on bicycles and trains or pushing carts and redistributing them back to the housewives. (In Mumbai, 4500 dabbawalla deliver over 200,000 lunches daily – some say a million daily – at the right time and to the right addresses.) The system of collecting the coded boxes that indicate the origin, the distribution station, the delivery area and the specific building and floor anticipated the postal code. The exquisite stainless steel layered tiffin with its four compartments in which the delicious mouth-watering hot Indian lunch is placed is as intrinsic to this film as any prop that I have ever seen in a movie 

We leave the film humming the song of the dabbawalla at the end of the film. I looked up the lyrics, for the tune was so catchy and realized how much of the ironic sense and symbolism I had missed by not understanding the words of the song, assuming that I have found the correct song that the Dabbawalla sing. Translated, it goes like this:


I am your Dabbawala

And I want to feed you

I can be your lover like a deer who longs for water

I can be your dabbawala if you keep me warm


My journey is long and winding

I fear I might spill my treasure


’cause I am your Dabbawalla

And I want to feed you

in the promised land it tastes like milk and honey

I’ll be your Dabbawala and dwell in your soul


My journey is long and winding

I fear I might spill my treasure


’cause I am your one love

I can fly like a peaceful dove.

There is no love triangle as in a Bollywood film There is no hero – the main character is the epitome of an anti-hero, a brusque and lonely accounting clerk and widower, Saajan Fernandes, acted with studied brilliance by Irrfan Khan, who has worked for the claims department of an insurance company for thirty-five years and is on the verge of retirement. In reality, he has already retired from life. The Dabbawalla of this anti-hero is really the housewife, Ila, thirsty for true love who prepares the delicious lunch originally for her husband. She is a wife who wants to feed her husband, but, in his absence, a lover simply in return for the warmth of companionship. She is willing to travel the long and winding journey even to Bhutan with this retiring clerk so the two of them can live together in the land of milk and honey where one can buy with one rupee that which costs five rupees in Mumba. But that is getting far ahead of the story for Saajan is filled with fear, fear of love, fear that he is too old, fear of novelty, fear of disappointing the other. 

The Lunch Box is a true masala rather than the artificial concoction brought together so delightfully in a typical Indian Bollywood film. When I write true masala, I mean that literally. The film opens on the theme that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach and Ila prepares the most delicious mixture of spices and flavours to win back the heart of her cold-hearted and indifferent husband through the lunches she prepares for him. But this is not a comedy of confusion and mixed up identities, though there are certainly some very comic moments, particularly when the dabbawala who picks up the lunch box defends the system against the accusation that this lunch box is going to the wrong man. The absolute certainty of the undoubtedly illiterate delivery man in his impeccable whites is backed up by his citation of a study done by a management consultant from Harvard (there actually was a Harvard Review business case study of the Dabbawalla delivery system) and Britain’s Prince Charles (who did actually inspect and laud the dabbawalla for the perfection of the system). But the satire in this film is of the gentlest quality.

Though the political dimensions of grand corruption and horrible villains of a Bollywood film are discarded, the central theme of impossible love is retained, but in its authentic mediaeval sense of unrequited love rather than the sentimental enchantment of the infatuations between two beautiful Bollywood stars. This is a film that reveals the true character of the crowded urban daily life in India in one of its most populous cities with over twelve million souls.

The movie also shares with a Bollywood film the reliance on coincidence and serendipity for the plot to work, only in this film, chance is inherent to the realism of the movie rather than a device imported to make the narrative move along in the way the director, Ritesh Batra, desires. Those carefully and meticulously prepared lunches are delivered to the desk of the wrong man. Further, in this story, the occasional use of including notes of exchange between husband and wife in the lunch boxes becomes the foundation of a touching exchange of brief and revealing letters dealing with both the mundane and the profound, an exchange between the lonely wife and the reclusive accountant who receives the wrong box, Saajan. When Ila learns that her meticulously labour-intensive prepared lunch is going to the wrong man who has grown accustomed to more insipid fare prepared by a commercial establishment, she sends the first note.

It is a romantic comedy and not just a romance about unrequited love, but the comedy is supplied by the supporting characters, mainly Nawazuddin Siddhiqui who plays Shaikh, a sycophantic schemer with a heart of gold who becomes Saajan’s assistant and designée to replace him after Saajan’s retirement. Shaikh, a gourmet cook himself, is the real romantic and man of courage because he fakes his credentials to win his job and wins the love of his life, Mehrunissa, even though he is short, too dark in colour and without future promise as an earner. The other source of comedy is Ila’s “auntie” who lives on the floor above and is never seen – she has to take care of her bedridden husband. “Auntie” offers spices to improve the lunches, recipes and advice. The other invisible bodies are those of the husband of “auntie” and of Ila’s own father, who has been bed ridden for fifteen years. Saajan at the beginning of the film might as well be one of these half-dead men who clutter the film, a group that includes Ila’s husband.

The movie is not just about the sweet and charming relationship that develops between Ila and Saajan through the gift by Ila to Saajan of very tasty food that fills a life that has lost all its taste. It is not just about the exchange of very hesitant but also very honest and forthright notes. For this heart touching movie that won a Critics Choice Award and was nominated for an Oscar, is, as I wrote above, about unrequited love. Subtle and unhurried, gentle and poignant, delicate and ultimately decent, this movie is not precisely about love that is not reciprocated, but about the inability of  people trapped in their habits and circumstances to be able to overcome the roadblocks to allow a reciprocal inter-personal relationship develop, One is only left at the end of the film with the faith that perhaps in the near future these two lovers, who have never truly met but have become so intimately involved, can consummate their relationship by the chance that they will end up taking the wrong train to the right place for it is precisely through that route that they “met” in the first place.



2 comments on “The Lunch Box

  1. […] excellent movie The Lunchbox, is about just that. (see Howard Adelman’s excellent review here and a relevant YouTube clip […]

  2. Axel says:

    Dear Howard Adelman, the correct song that the Dabbawalla sing in the train at the end and end title is a “bhajan” (devotional song) known as “Dnyanoba Mauli Tukaram” for two of main Marathi Saint-Poets: Dnyaneshwar (or Jñanesvar, in Sanskrit, 13-century, nickname: “Dnyanoba Mauli” – “Mother Knowledge” in raw translation) and Tukaram (17-century). The history of these Saint-Poets can be found on Wikipedia by their names. As far as I know this “bhajan” in its original form does not contain any reference to Dabbawalla, their work or their life style. In the film, it is mainly the repetition of the names of “Dnyanoba Mauli” and “Tukaram”. The “Dnyanoba Mauli Tukaram bhajan” can be found in YouTube in many versions. Regards, Axel.

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