This week I went to see The Lunchbox for the second time. It’s one of the best I’ve seen in ages: This film has the feel of an exceptionally good piece of literary short fiction.
The first time I saw it with my friend Susan a couple months ago, I was on the edge of my seat at times. The film tells the story of a lunchbox that gets misdelivered in Mumbai, leading to a correspondence between a middle class woman and a nearly-retired office worker. It charts with a subtle nuance the precariousness its characters’ lives. The everyday violence of loneliness, age, and marriage.
The film’s storytelling is consistent in its nuance, there is a stripped-down nature to its sound and sets and lighting. In moments when we normally expect incidental music, The Lunchbox lets us listen to the ambient sounds of traffic, an office lunchroom, a quiet apartment. We are there with these characters in their sensory experience, the white daylight, dim-yellow porches. When we do hear music, it is often part of the characters’ environments: the children performing on a crowded commuter train is as obtrusive to the viewer as it is to the train’s passengers. And the film at times plays with the conventions of music in film: Ila requests that her upstairs neighbor play the Bollywood soundtrack that illuminates her in a key moment; and when some incidental music does accompany Saajan’s reflections in one scene, his coworker’s arrival interrupts the music in a playfully abrupt way. It is a moment of meta-humor, and a self-conscious nod to the many ways this film works against cinematic expectation.
Resisting these conventions allows it to tell a richer story. Its characters and viewers are able to experience the force of humor and grief and upended expectation in moments both weighty and fleeting. The scent of a shower lingering in an empty bathroom, the trace of self in a street stall painting, the startling relief of grief.
There is a poetry in these moments. A lyricism the film conveys by being so spare, so open, so richly characterized. Seeing it again was like re-reading a short story that each time opens and re-opens us to ourselves.