The Lunchbox turns 10: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur’s epistolary romance was ironically about being seen

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Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which released on this day 10 years ago, is a sensory delight. One of the best food films to come out of the country, it makes you bite into the stuffed karelas and smell the coconut shreds peppered over the bhindi. But one sense that quietly makes its presence felt is sight, or the lack of it.

Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan played lovers who have never met in The Lunchbox

(Also Read: Nimrat Kaur interview on starring in Apple TV’s Foundation Season 2: I owe my international journey to The Lunchbox)

Not just food porn

Of course, the neat aesthetic of Nimrat Kaur’s Ila kneading the dough and packing home-cooked Maharashtrian food into the lunchbox, and Irrfan Khan‘s Saajan Fernandes, a non-vegetarian, relishing every bite of the vegetarian food cooked by a stranger, make for a complete arc of great food porn.

But the heart of The Lunchbox beats in what’s not seen. When Ila feels the dearth of weight in the lunchbox she sends for her husband, it reflects the lightness she feels within. Her husband eating a stomach-full of her food is a gesture as validating as him returning a sexual advance.

Even Deshpande aunty, in the flat above, who recommends recipes to Ila, is never seen in the film. The fact that she’s Ila’s go-to person, instead of her daughter or husband, establishes right at the start that Ila doesn’t need a visual to confide in someone. The proximity here is more emotional, than visual.

Cellphones on silent

Interestingly, no character in The Lunchbox is ever seen speaking on the phone, except Ila’s husband. We don’t know, unless we look very closely, whether the story is set in a pre-cellphone era or not.

An epistolary romance demands the elimination of phones, or at least the dismissal of it. But Ritesh Batra makes it seem right from the start that Ila and Saajan don’t seem like characters who would talk on the phone, even if they had the choice. They’re not fossils, but merely dreamers with an old-school idea of love.

Even in Ritesh’s next film, Netflix India’s Our Souls At Night, Robert Redford gifts Jane Fonda a cellphone only at the end of the film, when they have no alternate route to continue their romance.


The seen and the unseen

Ila and Saajan are also characters who don’t place too much currency on what’s around them, on what they can see. Ila has a daughter, but she’s more obsessed being the wife. And when she doesn’t feel seen as one, she can’t help but look for validation from the unseen.

On the other hand, Saajan takes everything he sees for granted. From the co-passengers in the local train to the zealous trainee in his office, Aslam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), Saajan prefers to read everyone on seen. He’s an acute observer, but starts to express or acknowledge what he sees only once he begins to share his observations with Ila. As he says at one point, “You forget things unless you have someone to tell them to.”

When Saajan does start to see those around him, they don’t reciprocate similarly. While smoking in the balcony at night, he can’t help but peep into the neighbourhood family, only for the little girl he dismissed earlier to draw the curtains. But as his romance with Ila progresses, and his gaze turns warm instead of needy, that girl waves at him upon being seen.

Peek-a-boo, I see you

When Ila feels seen, and Saajan enjoys seeing, she proposes they take their romance to the next level and see each other in flesh. But Saajan ends up merely observing Ila from a distance, as her desperate eyes seek his arrival at a restaurant. He fears she’ll see him as an old man, and he can’t help but unsee the youth in her. He’s so used to being not seen that he fears going to the other side.

It’s the one who has seen, and not been seen, who suggests to part ways. As if seeing someone for what they are is a deal-breaker. After tasting the blood of being seen, Ila can’t bear with the feeling of not being seen again. She decides to flee to Bhutan with her daughter, abandoning her unfaithful husband. Again, she’s never seen the country, but knows she’ll feel seen in a land that prioritises happiness.

At the end, we don’t know if Ila and Saajan got together, although there’s a good chance they would’ve met. The film ends with Saajan travelling with the dabbawalas in the local train as they head to pick up the lunchbox from Ila’s home. There’s a sense of an ending here, as the dabbawalas are the unseen force who reunite these lovers in the first place.

Yes, the camera follows the dabbawals keenly at the start, as they go about their impeccable transport system which has famously never faltered. But as Saajan and Ila’s romance brews, the dabba takes precedence over the dabbawalas. They’re relegated to the background, just like the office peon distributing the dabbas or the sweeper who mops the floor, facelessly. When Saajan travels with them to give love another chance, they feel seen, heard, validated. After years of invisible but immaculate work, it’s just one lapse that leads to their visibility.

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