`The Lunchbox’ was a nice film.
Its story – of a wrongly delivered lunchbox connecting two strangers in a large city, has been described as a known theme. It may not have been a lunchbox before, but similar predicament has been the stuff of link-up in stories. For all its alleged shortcomings, The Lunchbox warmed up to me effortlessly. It was neither difficult art nor any of that mainstream song and dance-routine. It was very much, the bland ordinary Mumbai life, told as it is with characters portrayed well by its lead actors.
In The Lunchbox, the sounds of everyday Mumbai were clearly heard. Music was mostly background score, that too only where needed and, subtle. There was an amazing economy of dialogue. When the characters spoke, their words and intonation fitted them to the T. Dialogues were crisp, sometimes tender and in a rarity for contemporary Indian films – there was an entire character who was just voice heard and not person seen. This film worked well as cinema. Its continuity was maintained through a mix of narrative, visual linkages between scenes and such funky aural continuity like the same song sung by different people with different tone and aural quality in different environments, which conveyed volumes about the travel through different contexts that is a daily Mumbai life.
Mumbai has been featured liberally on film. It has been shown umpteen times by the local film industry to the extent that its presentation on cinema often leaves people confused when they see the city’s harsh reality. They search for an elusive optimism in the mess. The Lunchbox seemed an honest depiction of life in the apartments, suburban trains, buses and streets I left behind to walk into the cinema hall and see the movie. The fulcrum for its story was the city’s dabbawalas, famous for their daily delivery of lunchboxes bearing home cooked-food and food prepared at small hotels, to people working in various offices. It is an amazing distribution system, very unique to Mumbai. Around the everyday journey of the film’s central lunchbox and the story of a relationship spawned by its incorrect delivery, the film captured well the city’s feel, from crowd and congestion to the less spoken of but very real loneliness of the individual. It is easy to pass off Mumbai as a city of great energy and enterprising people, prospering from opportunity. That isn’t how life is for all. Many of us remain anonymous and ordinary. An ordinary life is just that – ordinary. At day’s end you crawl back to your corner of accumulated loneliness. And as the city sleeps, perhaps you wonder whether there is someone, somewhere in the millions staying around who would understand you. The relationship that evolves between the two strangers was treated as the friendship it is with no judgement. In the one moment in the film, when one of the protagonists judges the relationship, the other attempts to bridge it. Friendship, companionship – they are like oxygen. This one shines against the bareness of the mental landscape it is located in.
According to Wikipedia, the tradition of dabbawala is traceable to 1880. In 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche and Ananth Mandra Reddy started a lunch delivery service with about a hundred men. In 1956, a charitable trust called Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust was registered, followed by its commercial arm in 1968 called Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association. The website estimates that between 175,000 to 200,000 lunch boxes are moved daily by 4500-5000 dabbawalas.
Finally, you have the actors. The film’s casting was overall well done. Including the voice only-Mrs Deshpande! Three good actors formed the visible central cast. Given movies celebrated for their box office performance no matter how loud and atrocious they are, The Lunchbox is a reminder that if you try, quality is within reach.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)