Movie: The Lunch Box (2013, Hindi, India)

Lunch Box Poster

Directed by Ritesh Batra
Released May 2013
Genre Romance, Relationships, Art Cinema
Cast Irrfan Khan as Saajan Fernandez, an insurance company officer approaching retirement
Nimrat Kaur as Ila, a homemaker
Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Shaikh, Saajan’s replacement at work
Lillete Dubey as Ila’s mother
Nakul Vaid as Rajiv, Ila’s husband
Music by Max Richter
Produced by Anurag Kashyap, Guneet Monga, Karan Johar, Siddharth Roy Kapur, Arun Rangachari
Language Hindi
Length 1 hour 44 mins

When The Lunch Box was released in India in September 2013, after winning several awards and getting rave reviews from critics, it went on my “must see as quickly as possible” list, especially since the movie had Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the cast. A friend who saw it a few days ago also had some good things to say about it.

And then the controversy about the Oscar nomination for the Best Foreign Film category from India (The Lunch Box did not get selected, a movie titled The Good Road was nominated by the selection committee), whetted my appetite even further. I saw the movie on Sept 28th in a Multiplex in Bangalore.

Please be aware that the review below may contain “spoilers” (i.e., information about the plot of a motion picture or TV program that can spoil a viewer’s sense of surprise or suspense :-)).

The Plot

Saajan Fernandez (played by Irrfan Khan) who works in the Claims Section of a public sector insurance company, is approaching superannuation and is proposing early retirement. He is a crusty widower, a loner, and not very friendly with his colleagues or neighbours. He avoids training and handing over of his duties to his proposed replacement Shaikh (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

Ila (played by relative Bollywood newcomer, Nimrat Kaur) is a homemaker who lives with her young daughter and husband in a typical Mumbai middle-class apartment. The husband Rajiv (played by Nakul Vaid) is busy with his job, has no time for Ila, and the marriage seems to be drifting. Ila spends her spare time gossiping with her neighbour, Mrs Deshpande, who lives in the apartment above taking care of her bed-ridden husband.

Every day, Ila prepares lunch for her husband and has it delivered to her husband’s office via the famous Mumbai dabbawallas (Mumbai’s highly accurate, efficient and cost-effective lunch box pickup, routing and delivery system, see more information here). The dabbawallas also pick up Fernandez’s lunch from a grimy take-away joint on a daily basis.

The story kicks-off when the dabbawallas make a rare mistake and the lunch boxes are exchanged. The mistake continues everyday thereafter, as neither Ila, nor Fernandez inform the dabbawallas of the error. In the process they start exchanging little notes (inside the lunch box) and build a long-distance relationship. The story is about this relationship.

In the process, we see that Ila suspects her husband of having an affair, Ila and Fernandez set up a meeting, Fernandez contemplates not taking an early retirement, Fernandez gets reprimanded for carelessness, etc., etc.

You will need to see the movie to figure out how it ends.

Realistic Setting, Great Acting, but a Weak Plot and Implausible Situations

The lead actors Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui are excellent in their respective roles. The office and the homes are realistic, as is the city of Mumbai, with its crushing crowds, squalor and claustrophobic atmosphere.

It is the story where the movie flounders. And many implausible set of situations. Here are some examples:

  • Ila’s husband continues to get his (wrong) lunch from a take-away everyday, instead of the lunch from home  – he neither asks Ila, nor does he complain to the dabbawallas, eating the alien preparation day after day.
  • Later, Ila contemplates leaving her recently bereaved mother, and taking off for Bhutan (with her daughter) – I am sure she had more options, like asking for a separation from her husband.
  • At Fernandez’s office, Shaikh (who neither has discipline nor is properly trained by Fernandez) is handed over Fernandez’s position, even when the office manager knows the situation.

The pace drags and even the romance is more of desperation of the protagonists – the romance did not touch me in any way.

Though it is a good movie, it is not great. I just don’t understand why the critics have gone ga-ga over it (maybe because it got an award/ standing ovation in some foreign country; and no one wants to say that the emperor is not wearing all his clothes; or maybe because it is an art movie and it is blasphemous to tank an art movie).

My recommendation – don’t go to see the movie in a theatre. Don’t buy a DVD. See it when it comes on the movie channels (it will come soon) – you will need the commercial breaks. Anyway, watching the squalor of Mumbai and dog-eared files in offices on the big screen is far more depressing, than watching it on the small screen.

Warning: Big Spoiler in this box!

Another thing that depressed me was the food in the lunch box, and how everyone went wow over it. It looked unappetizing. It looked unhealthy. And the quantity was too much. I don’t think piping hot gravy-based food when packed and jiggled through Mumbai trains, cycles and handcarts for over two hours can either smell good or taste good. The food would swelter in its own sweat and be tepid by the time it reaches the eater (it is called “buusna” in Hindi, unfortunately I could not find an equivalent English term). Another hour or so and that kind of food would be spoilt. No wonder Ila’s husband used to return the food barely eaten. The character Shaikh had the right idea of getting apples and bananas for lunch.

Also, I did feel for Ila’s husband, who must have eaten aloo-gobi based lunch from a grimy take-away for over a month. With all that gas produced by the aloo-gobi, he is not likely to be in a position to have an affair that his wife suspects him of. The scent that she sniffs on his clothes is more likely to be that of the aloo-gobi/ gas than that of another woman.

By the way, I thought the movie was set post 2010. However I did not see any computers in Fernandez’s office, nor did I see cell phones being used extensively in the office. There is even a meeting in a public place fixed without exchanging mobile numbers (unthinkable over the last 8- 10 years!).

The movie is less than 2 hours – and that is a big plus.

The DVD is not yet available.

Here is a trailer:

If the youtube clip does not load, use the url http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Enq9nNGnMFY

I think this review may be a spoiler in more ways than one – even for those who earlier (thought they) liked it!

You can read reviews of movies and TV serials here (https://rajeshnaik.com/category/movies/).

Your comments are welcome!


I'm Rajesh Naik, and this is my personal website If you are interested in contacting me professionally, I am available on LinkedIn and I will be glad to accept your invite. You may also check out my professional website, Alignmentor.com.

3 thoughts on “Movie: The Lunch Box (2013, Hindi, India)”

  1. Agree largely … I too saw this last week at a plush Mumbai Multiplex (chose a weekday, so that I save on the ticket cost)

    But yes haven’t yet read a review which trashes it like this and how!

    Taking nothing from Riesh Batra, I do feel, Rajesh, that you have made some real valid points .. especially the cellphone and computer bit ….

    Signing off as its time now for my own Lunch Box…

    Good review – Personal recommedation- pls see more movies and review them !

    ====== Sent from Office waiting for lunchbox sans aloo gobhi ======

  2. While I agree that the storyline could have been better and the romantic angle developed further and concluded in a logical/more plausible way, I generally liked the film due to the following aspects:

    1.There is something magical, almost mystical about a lunchbox; the movie connected me with some of my fond memories of waiting for my lunchboxes during my working (and bachelor) days in Mumbai. I used to subscribe to different vendors every month (and my office had a list of vendors) and every single experience I had of eating from a lunchbox has been exhilarating. The process of unlayering the containers and discovering the content, the joy of beholding the spread that unfolded before the eyes and then wading into the food with the sheer anticipation of a connoissuer can only be had through the lunchbox.

    In case of a lunchbox packed by a mother/wife, the content of the lunchbox and level of detail with which it is stuffed, is to me an indicator of the underlying degree of affection. Whoever said that the shortest and sustained way to a man’s heart is through his stomach could not have argued his case better..and better still if the way to the stomach is facilitated through a multi container fondly packed lunchbox.

    So in a way the film helped me connect to those memories and gave me that feel good sense.

    2. I have not had any experience of food having gone bad when delivered. In fact, the specification of the containers, the lead times for pick up and delivery and the mode of delivery by the Mumbai Dabbawallas have factored in the perishability aspect (unless of course somebody has stuffed in stale food into the box by intention). So in a matter of speaking, the SSD and SD processes generally work fine, going by my personal experiences.

    3. While your observation on lack of computers in the office is valid, my own view is that this could have lead to the why so many letters in a lunchbox then?, exchange mail ids in the first letter and then switch on to mails argument…this would have killed the lunchbox mode of delivery of communications; thus defeating the very theme on which the film is based.

    I also feel that different films appeal to different people in different ways based on their respective frame of reference.

    To me, since the film helped me connect to some fond memories of the past (of eating though,not the letter part:(, it had a great appeal. Also the notion of exchanging hand written letters through a lunchbox is novel and very romantic (very similar to strangers exchanging thoughts on the social media, though I feel the possibility of instant/anytime communication makes the exchange a lot more mechanical and not a quarter as romantic).

    4. Nawazuddin occupying Irfan’s position in office inspite of not having been trained may be a normal practice….we are aware that organizations do promote people simple on tenure/experience than on competencies:).Hire for attitude, damn the skills, could have been the operating principle.

    5. As regards the Oscar nomination part, I feel there was a lot of unnecessary hype around this; a film has to be enjoyed (or tolerated)in my view on its own merits..and nomination or otherwise to an Oscar or any other award may be material perhaps only for the direct stakeholders. As far as I glean from the newspapers, its not just merit that helps a film wing its way into the Oscar list.

    6. The lunchbox was more a “Play” than a film…I am sure it could have done great in a theater format.

    I would personally rate the film 4/5….1 point less than the max for the abrupt ending, some degree of repititiveness and for the Bhutan complication(like all arty films tend to do…lot of stuff unsaid at the end).

    Cheers for the lunchbox and the joy it brings.

    Prakash

    1. Well if you liked this film, you may want to see “Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan” and “27 Down”. Really extreme form of meaningless arty stuff. They did get a lot of accolades in their time!

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