When Food is the Medium: Enjoying the Lunch Box

Food is always more than the thick line of culture. It lets people communicate.  Bad food causes the conversation to sour with indignation; good food stimulates and thrills.  It is both medium and message, allowing individuals to engage, to discuss, and even to joust.

This year has seen this theme explored.  There was Lasse Hallström’s The Hundred-Foot Journey, which sees an improbable effort to open an Indian establishment opposite a one star Michelin restaurant in provincial France.  The effort does not only succeed, but the rivals – Helen Mirren’s stuffy Madame Mallory and Om Puri’s determined father of the protagonist, Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), form ties of affection and love.  Food, even before the gaze of the camera, will out with its playfulness; food, even if it is a rigid expression of set values defended by culinary commissars, can also soften detractors and seduce opponents.

Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, with its antecedents in Ernst Lubtisch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and Alan Bridges’ Brief Encounter (1974), adopts the value of food in a touchingly restrained manner.  It is, importantly, the facilitator, helped on by an anomalous misdelivery within Mumbai’s famous tiffin carrier system.  Home cooked food held in the carriers is placed in what is a singular system of delivery orchestrated by the dabbawallas.  It is stunningly efficient, getting to the destination ahead of lunch.  When this error is pointed out, thereby alluding to a chink in this fabulous machinery of excellence, the questioning Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is met with astonishment by the deliverer.  “Even Harvard people came and said it was best.”

Central here is the blooming correspondence that takes place between Irrfran Khan’s Mr Fernandes, a Mumbai widower, and Ila, a woman yearning to win back the affection of her husband via his stomach.  She has various gastronomic delights up her sleeve, and seeks to employ them.  The entirely unintended beneficiary of the bewitching is Fernandes.

The food is consumed; the containers are emptied.  This game of misdelivery continues even as Ila’s husband receives orders from a commercial kitchen. Being disengaged and otherwise interested elsewhere, he doesn’t notice, even when asking why Ila keeps using cauliflower.  “It gives me gas.”  The correspondence begins through notes slipped into the emptied containers, starting with the none too promising scribble of irritation by Fernandes that “the food was very salty today”.  Ila, in a cook’s rebuke, makes sure to spice the next round.

Khan has made the unusually seamless transition from Bollywood to Hollywood, giving the impression he just walked in from one studio into another.  And there is good reason for thinking so.  Here, he is quite brilliant in mastering the understatement. There is an economy of expression with a maximum of feeling.

Even as the story progresses through the notes exchanged in the tiffin carriers, Fernandes transforms.  The lines of his face soften.  The spring of gambolling youth takes hold.  It is not merely the food that induces the ecstatic moment and that almost idiotic grin of happiness.  It is a reminder to him that his heart, despite being trapped in a curmudgeonly being, still beats.  He even takes an orphan, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who intends to replace him after retirement under his wing, something deemed unthinkable at the start.

Impressively, the platonic relationship between the characters remains tender and absent of cloying sentimentality, a reflection about their lives, of Fernandes’s dead wife; of Ila’s discovery that her husband is having an affair, or reflections on her dead brother, who committed suicide after failing an exam.  There are striking observations that do stick in what is, essentially, a simple film executed with exquisite grace.  Fernandes notes his age; lla dreams of going to Bhutan, where Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross National Product, reigns as a measure of human satisfaction.

All the while, this conspiracy of happiness continues as the seed of an error. When it comes to an attempt at a physical meeting, the written word conveyed through food becomes overwhelming.  The dream world threatens to take form of flesh. Fernandes resists this – he is only too aware that youth has already flowered, of that smell that reminds him of his grandfather. But the journey of food is one that is interminable. It is something that never ages.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.