Rediscovering Irrfan Khan’s The Lunchbox Through A Feminist Lens

Irrfan Khan's The Lunchbox

Ever since the legendary internationally acclaimed actor late Irrfan Khan bid us goodbye, he left behind a treasure chest brimming with brilliant films for us to cherish over and over again.

So, last week for the tenth time, I watched this beautifully crafted narrative presented through the indelible scenes of this feature film The Lunchbox directed by Ritesh Batra. The screen is shared by two brilliant actors Irfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur.

Rediscovering Irrfan Khan’s The Lunchbox

So, the age-old tradition of the famous dabbawallas of Mumbai who carry tiffins and lunchboxes from houses and restaurants to offices acts as a prelude to the narrative wherein an unloved housewife is shown packing a lip-smacking lunchbox for her husband. But mistakenly, the tiffin lands with the wrong person. That is where the narrative gains momentum of how these two strangers, who later realise that they share a common string of emotions and desires, seem to explore human connections through the exchange of letters in the same lunchbox that travels every day between wrong destinations.

For the unloved wife, Ila, it was meant to be for her husband and for the unknown lonesome receiver, Saajan Fernandes, it was meant to come from an ordinary tiffin service chain. But what happens when things swap and the unknown becomes the known. Hence, this is the essence of the film which is very beautifully told through human emotions being carried in a lunch box. A lunchbox really has so much to say. There is this unloved married Ila, who like any other married woman, chooses good food to help her waning marriage and to spellbind her husband through the savouring recipes shared by an unseen elderly lady struggling to keep her husband alive.

Saajan Fernandes is an elderly widower who accepts his fate and continues being a lonesome recluse who often spends his time reading books or watching films. And then Shaikh, his office colleague who too has his own share of ostracism, being an orphan. From the raw pixelated versions of their lives, the characters develop a delicate bond with each other through a shared feeling of isolation and dejection. For Saajan, it’s Shaikh and for Ila, it’s her neighbour whom she addresses as Auntie. But for Saajan and Ila, it’s something beyond a casual friendship over letters.

What happens is that Saajan was dependent on his past and so became socially isolated in the present, Ila was dependent on her husband and the moment she stopped acquiring attention and acknowledgement from her husband to save her marriage she bonded so well with an unseen character and the tiffin being the medium to show her love and affection to a stranger.

The real essence

In a glittering city like Mumbai with its bustling streets and a sea of dreams, people still suffer from loneliness and depression. Through the lens of dejection, dependency and isolation, these two characters question their existence and the very essence of companionship. There is a very beautiful dialogue by Saajan on the same lines – “Sometimes we forget things if we have no one to tell them to.”

So, keeping the subtle realities of life in the nucleus, the film very well chooses to vignette the charming fancies of city life, as the characters plan to head to Bhutan which is believed to be a Gross National Happiness. Where everyone lives a happy life. Hence, like the movie says, sometimes even the wrong train can lead you to the right destination.

Moreover, the very fact that the film chooses to divert the attention of the audience, away from the sweet exchange of messages, towards the broader issues of mental health and social life. Also, the fact that Ila has been shown on a transitory stage from being a  dependable housewife initially towards an independent individual cum mother later, shows that the essence of feminism and individualism has also been reflected.

The best part about the film was how the characterisation of each character blended so well with the scenes. Through the aperture of an unknown reality, it is through the course of the film, that reality mounts with each fold of the letters. There are these very minute scenes which actually unfold the harsh realities of city life and the people living on the other side of the spectrum because sometimes things are not what they seem to be! Every time you watch this film, you would decode something new always. For me, rediscovering Irrfan Khan’s The Lunchbox can never be outdated.

Views expressed by author are their own

Suggested Reading: Modern Love Mumbai To Lunchbox: Contemporary Indian Films And Series Revise Romance


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