The Lunchbox: Unshared Stories, Unanswered Questions

A seemingly functional urban life, in general, demands a lot from the individual. But, more than anything it forces one to take things for granted, to embrace things as and when they arrive, to not aspire, to not probe, to not demand. If you ask too many questions, if you allow yourself the luxury to be disappointed or joyous, then you are breaking the forbidden rule of urban life: to press the pause button. If you alter the rules—keep pausing and reflecting—your few moments of frenzied happiness will be punctuated with long stretches of unending despair. And, no one wants despair. So, those far and few liberated moments also soon become theoretical. And, the normal becomes the routine. Soon, days begin melding into one another, deprived of identity and a sense of belonging. You just find yourself someplace, somewhere, after a certain point of time. Doing what? You have no idea. You had stopped consciously deciding a long time back.  But, that’s not the worst part. The worst part is, it never occurred to you that you had stopped deciding. The scariest part of living in any big city, especially a city like Bombay, is not that it alienates you from others, it’s that it alienates you from yourself.

The Lunchbox

Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is also similarly alienated. He’s squished for places—in trains, in buses—day in, and day out. His working desk, however, is a sharp contrast, spatially—here, he’s not enclosed by the cubicle walls—rather, it’s an open desk, shared by his co-workers. For the first few minutes in the film, Saajan is introduced to us through a string of mundane activities. What is he? Who is he? Frankly, he looks like an insufferable bore, for when he’s not busy being insensate and stuffy, he appears grumpy. Does he not see or listen stories on a daily basis, enroute to his office or home? Does nothing move him? There are very few things this country can take pride in, the vibrancy of its citizens and their eclectic stories being one of them. But, Saajan, appears strangely disconnected.

It’s only a little later that we realize that he does absorb the stories around. It’s just that he has no one to share them with. Surrounded by people yet alone, has to be one of the most popular clichés of urban ennui. And, that is the burden any big city has to endure—of stories undocumented, of stories unshared, of stories forgotten. On the other hand, unlike Saajan, Ila doesn’t interact a lot with the outside world. She’s a housewife, and her frequent interaction with the outside world doesn’t include faces, only voices – the aunty who lives upstairs and the radio. Disinterested husband, a non-existent social circle, ailing father, and an unsure mother, there is no corner Ila can turn to. Saajan appears disconnected; Ila is barely connected. And yet, they are united by the sadness they endure. They have to be. Sadness, by its very nature, is egalitarian.

Another hallmark of a sprawling metropolis is the number of people and their varied emotion it shelters. It is at once both comforting and disconcerting to know that the very moment you feel serene, there could be someone else in another part of the city experiencing a meltdown. That there would always be someone else in the city who would be completely in or out of sync with you. Someone who would get your eccentricities, complete your lines, understand your bizarre, barely-begun jokes.

Throughout the film, Batra keeps hinting—sometimes intelligently, at times overtly—that our worlds are connected: through whirling fans, songs, flies; that the disconnect we keep talking about doesn’t amount to much because this loneliness is not limitless, it has to, and will, end with someone. But, more than that, Batra explores something more essential: when and how do we fall in love? How much our falling in love is a function of our own selves and how much does it depend on the world we live in? Because, as the film suggests, more than anything, it has to do with the timing. There is no one you. We change during the course of our lives and so does the things we are looking for. The concept of people changing over a period of time is acceptable, but not the kind of love and acceptance their new avatar seeks. Why?

One can imagine Ila being happy with her husband a couple of years back. What causes people to drift from each other? Sometimes via violent disagreements, sometimes through cold silences. One can also imagine Saajan to be very different 35 years back, when he probably came to Bombay as a sprightly young lad. Had Saajan and Ila communicated with each other a few years back, would they have been able to fall in love with each other? We all know the answer to that question. Is that the reason so many urban marriages or relationships that continue for so long reek of rejected acceptance?

Movies often ignore the most significant facet of love stories: conversations. How you interact with the world, and then, in turn, interact with the one you have fallen for. Bringing in those conversations a bit of yourself and the world you see. You just need someone to keep the conversation going. Saajan slowly bares himself to Ila, writes to her about his days, shares stories that were just at the brink of being obliterated. Ila responds too. Opening up memories that were locked and divorced from her daily life, tucked carefully in a case in some corner of the house. That’s what a kindred other does, it makes you inch to that part of yourself you had forgotten about. Forget immediate happiness, treasured relationships are centred on someone who makes you wistfully sad.

The rut of daily life also nurtures in us something primal—the desire to escape, to run away. Because, when we were growing up, this wasn’t the life that was promised to us by parents, relatives, teachers. It was all going to be fine, they had said. Once you do this, then that, and then something else, you would be on your way upwards. On your way towards professional and emotional resonance. But, no one spoke anything about disappointment, dissatisfaction, disillusionment. No one told Saajan that every evening when he comes back from work, and smokes a cigarette in his balcony alone, while looking at a family in the opposite building dining together, what questions should he ask, what answers should he look for. No one told Ila that if she stands near the window of her house staring endlessly outside at nothing in particular, the silence enveloping her would not have an answer.

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One thought on “The Lunchbox: Unshared Stories, Unanswered Questions

  1. Wow. just beautifully written. Watched the movie today and this write-up took the afterthoughts to a whole new level.
    The lines that really made me think hard were-

    “The scariest part of living in any big city, especially a city like Bombay, is not that it alienates you from others, it’s that it alienates you from yourself.”

    “And yet, they are united by the sadness they endure. They have to be. Sadness, by its very nature, is egalitarian.”

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