Streaming’s Hidden Treasures: The Lunchbox

Image: UTV Motion Pictures/Sony Pictures Classics

This edition of Streaming’s Hidden Treasures was featured on BBC Essex radio with Helen Scott. You can listen to it here: Skip to 1:45:00 for the Reel Time segment.

Streaming has changed the way we view films. It is a change that has been welcomed by many and sniffed at by others. Like it or not, however, Netflix, Amazon and the like play a huge part in being a film-lover today. These platforms have vast amounts to offer, some of which is sorely overlooked. Streaming’s Hidden Treasures aims to pick out quality, different and lesser-known cinema from across the internet, offering a guide to a variety of entertainment with ease and affordability.

Directors: Ritesh Batra

Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui

Streaming Service: BBC iPlayer

The film world was recently saddened by news of the death of the actor Irrfan Khan, sometimes known simply as Irrfan. A star in his native India and a respected character actor over in Hollywood, Khan was garlanded with tributes after the news hit. In response, the BBC have made his 2013 film The Lunchbox, in which Khan is magnificent, available on iPlayer until 8thJune.

Directed by Ritesh Batra and also starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Nimrat Kaur, The Lunchbox is a notably quiet and gentle film, but is all the more spellbinding for it. It’s set in Mumbai, and the plot revolves around the city’s lunchbox delivery system that feeds its hungry workers. Prepared in the morning by home cooks or restaurants, hot lunches are picked up by dabbawalas, people who deliver the meals usually by bike or rail. Famously efficient, the dabbawalas don’t make mistakes. The right lunchbox goes to the right person.

Except, here, it doesn’t. In an unexplained one-off error the lunches painstakingly prepared by Ila, for her detached, uninterested husband never get to him, but instead land on the desk of melancholic, wants-to-be-left-alone widower Saajan, played by Khan himself. Soon realising the mistake, but enjoying the rare intrigue and excitement it brings to her life, Ila begins to leave notes in the lunchbox for her mystery recipient. Saajan returns the favour. And so the pair begin to connect through little hand-written letters and good food.

That’s it, really. Very little else happens in the film other than this. There’s a side-plot focussing on the blossoming friendship between Saajan and his over-eager soon-to-be replacement Shaikh, but that really is it. Yet to focus on its action or plot would be to entirely ignore the joys of The Lunchbox. It is a lovely, charming film that gathers strength from its simplicity.

There are several elongated scenes just of Saajan eating his lunch that are strangely compelling. The slow, careful way in which he unpacks the food, and the subtle elation it brings him are a delight to watch, and it almost entirely comes from Khan. Superb as Saajan, he does so much with so little, investing every movement with a sense of melancholy and emotion. 

He and Nimrat Kaur, as Ila, both portray lonely characters, and at its core the film is about their shared need to feel again. Saajan has lived out the same dull routine every day since his wife died, detached from the ability to either smile or cry. Ila, meanwhile, is profoundly bored. She is stuck in the role of housewife in the most stifling sense. She spends hours making food for her husband which he takes little notice of, and yearns for some passion or excitement to come back into her life. She is only young, but Ila feels like her best years are already behind her.

The lunchbox snafu offers Saajan and Ila the small thrill they needed, bringing whimsy, fun, and mystery back into their very stale lives. With this comes emotional connection, something they have both, for different reasons, lost. This is no big Hollywood romance though, even if it may sound like it. The Lunchbox is in fact a realistic and understated look at the small joys that a bit of compassion and communication can bring to a person.

Whilst the focus remains on the central relationship between Ila and Saajan, the film has a nice texture brought to it by the peripheral characters around them. Ila’s auntie, heard but never seen, shouts advice to her from the apartment upstairs, and sends down extra spices and ingredients for the lunches in a basket; she adds levity to a film that could have become weighed down with melancholy. Likewise, the puppyish Shaikh is a perfect foil for Saajan at work, trying ever so hard to make friends with his resolutely grumpy colleague.

It all adds up to a warm, fuzzy treat of a film, helped along by the food itself. Everything Ila prepares looks delicious, and all the way through The Lunchbox as a film seems to delight in the act of eating and the joyousness of food. The love and care Ila puts into making the lunches seems to transfer onto Saajan when he eats them. The more love and care she puts into them, the more he gets out.

The Lunchbox is available to stream right now on BBC iPlayer, which is perhaps worth noting in that it isn’t Netflix. As long as you’ve paid your license fee, everybody has access to BBC iPlayer, and the amount of great content on there often goes overlooked. Along with a solid backlog of TV shows, there are many films worth seeking out on the service. Highlights at present include high-school comedy Election, Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and slow-burn gambling drama Mississippi Grind. A whole host of classic Hollywood movies have just been made available for over a year as well, including Citizen Kane and the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical Top Hat. First off, though, watch The Lunchbox, if only to witness the late Irrfan Khan’s great, moving performance.

Andrew Young