In the film The Lunchbox (2013), a middle-class lonely housewife Ila and a soon-to-be-retired accountant Saajan Fernandes develop a companionship after Ila’s husband’s lunchbox is misdelivered to Saajan. Ila goes around the house being the perfect housewife, but her unhappiness is palpable from the film’s beginning.
However, her life drastically turns when Saajan Fernandes mistakenly receives her husband Rajeev’s lunchbox. As the duo begins to exchange letters, we witness an empowering change in her life. Ila’s character undergoes multiple transitions throughout the film.
In the initial section of the film, she is a housewife and a mother who wakes up to a pre-decided set of domestic chores. After the faulty delivery, she is a woman who incorporates another identity by herself — a friend to Saajan Fernandez. And later, she is a woman contemplating her past and future to achieve a sense of the self. Therefore, there is a transition from a passive to an empowered being. This transition is accomplished by the objects she is surrounded with at her home and also the objects in the public realm.
Even though her presence can be seen in the most ‘feminine’ space of the house, the kitchen, this space can also be perceived as an area opposed to male-centric spaces. A kitchen is also the most private space that women share during different times of the day. In the film, Deshpande aunty and Ila are in constant dialogue and share everything from recipes to hobbies, like listening to Hindi music. The misdelivery by Mumbai’s delivery system is the film’s context, which drastically impacts Ila’s life.
This article mainly chose this film to understand how Ila negotiates through a disruption in the dabba system, i.e., the food delivery system; only once objected to the faulty delivery, Ila soon uses the misdelivery to form a bond with a stranger.
Sara Roncgalia, in the preface to her research on food circulation in a city, observes that the dabba service strengthens the ties of family and workplace environment so that “domestic intimacy enclosed in the tiffin can emerge during a lunch break in the office, on a building site, in a factory”. In this sense, the kitchen and dabba service fail Ila’s expectations of keeping her marriage healthy.
However, Ila navigates these failures and disruptions to emerge as an enlightened woman. The kitchen as a feminine space and the lunchbox initially embodying her wavering marriage experience multiple transitions (like Ila) throughout the movie. It is imperative to engage with the cinematic representations of mundane daily objects like lunchboxes, because as much as the dabba service is globally known for its efficiency, it also embodies marriage and family ties for a middle-class woman living in Mumbai.
This article will attempt to trace the change in Ila’s engagement with material objects influenced by the dabba.
The Lunchbox was a welcoming change in the Bollywood industry that almost reached the door of the Oscars. It was my first encounter with Mumbai’s dabba service. When I watched the film in the theatre, my mother told me that Mumbai’s dabba delivery service is a mystery because no one knows how they accurately deliver thousands of tiffins. Until then, I failed to understand the significance of the context of the film; for me, it was just a lunchbox that carried meals for the husband.
It was later that I understood the multiple meanings that the lunchbox denotes. For the husband, it is a stomach filler; for the dabbawallahs, it is the job of delivering the box in time; for Deshpande aunty, it holds a gendered meaning. However, for Saajan and Ila, it is a fluid entity. As much as it symbolises their friendship, the lunchbox is routinised in their lives.
Ila’s cooking and presence in food-related spaces
Keeping in mind Ila’s cooking process, Shaikh’s Pasanda and the act of cutting vegetables on the train, Fernandez’s consumption of afternoon meals and bananas off the streets of Mumbai and other minor scenes, one can categorise The Lunchbox as a food film.
In her work Reel Food: Essays on food and film, Anne L. Bower says that in food films, characters attempt to negotiate their identity, power, class etc., through food. When she begins cooking for Saajan, Ila’s relationship with food changes.
Earlier, her engagement with cooking concerned her receiving acknowledgement from her husband; however, cooking for Saajan brings a sense of empowerment as she begins to express her emotions and memories through her food and no longer requires Mrs. Deshpande’s help.
From the beginning, Ila’s feelings and emotions of anticipation, uneasiness, happiness and sadness arise exclusively from food. When Saajan comments about her food being salty, she prepares the next meal extra spicy as a retort. Also, she opens the door and weighs the lunchbox with apprehension every time the lunchbox is delivered back to her house.
Food films also highlight associated spaces like the kitchen, dining table, eateries etc. The kitchen becomes a social and reflective space for Ila. Here, she practises her identity as a friend and a lone housewife. As much as she shares her marriage and idle time with Deshpande aunty, she also keeps thoughts about Saajan to herself.
The only time Ila, her husband and her daughter are together is when they have dinner together. As opposed to the general understanding of the dining space as an area where families sit together and share their day’s engagements, the dining area becomes a forced entity in the film. Her cooking efforts once again go unacknowledged as Rajeev drowns himself on TV.
The cafe, primarily a public space, also symbolises her much-anticipated meeting with Saajan. Their friendship is reaffirmed here as it soon takes a tactile form.
The lunchbox and the letters
The interplay between the letter and the lunchbox brings about the subjectivity of their companionship, which is strengthened by her repeated practices around the lunchbox: feeling the lunchbox’s weight and opening the box with an eager look.
Ila navigates her loneliness only after the mess-up in lunch box deliveries; Ila’s involvement with other house objects increases. This leads Ila and Saajan to get some control over each other’s private lives. For instance, on Saajan’s suggestion of having another child, she wears her honeymoon kurti. The kurti is a strategy to rekindle her bond with Rajeev by bringing in memories. She is also indirectly engaging with Saajan’s interaction with objects.
Ila controls Saajan’s life through her knowledge of his interactions with material things. For instance, after knowing Ila’s father’s cause of death, he quits smoking. She also navigates her loneliness by negotiating with her past and present thoughts. There is a dialogue between her past and present. She uses an old family recipe book to prepare a delicious meal for Saajan. The interaction between present and past leads her to revisit a sense of self while going through her deceased brother’s old pictures. She brings up her struggling thoughts on courage and tries to connect his brother’s death with her present sense of courage with her marriage in context.
Rom Harré says how objects achieve social meanings with change in the context of narratives. As much as objects represent lives, narrativisation of lives bestows personalised sense to the objects. Saajan’s letters have objects that represent his life and allow Ila to imagine him; for instance, the old TV show recordings that his wife used to watch repeatedly and laugh at.
The reality that Ila forms in her friendship with Saajan brings a new subjectivity to her life through imagination, projecting the necessity of objects as it facilitates imagining individuals. It is only because of the objects that her imagination concretises her understanding of Saajan and gives a face to their growing bond through his anecdotes and daily commutes.
The letters are like novels to Ila, who travels and knows Mumbai by sitting at home. She gets a picture of ordinary people’s lives in Mumbai who have bananas to cut back on expenses and have a filling lunch. It is also important to notice that friendship is between two people from different generations. Therefore, Mumbai also comes as a quiet and relatively less populated city in Saajan’s descriptions of a past Mumbai.
The gradual blur in the binary of private and public space prompts Ila to consider moving to Bhutan for its Gross National Happiness. The simultaneous being at her home and in Mumbai’s streets and transports gives her the ‘courage’ that she was previously pondering over to rethink her position in her marriage.
We tend to overlook the significance of everyday objects surrounding us and often fail to realise how they help us assert our agency in multiple ways. The human-object relationship in the film brings forth a certain understanding of the intersection of feminism and material culture. The fluidity in the materiality of things and Ila’s transition from a wife and mother to a contemplative individual being, inform each other’s role and existence in society.
Rhea Choudhury is currently pursuing an MA in English and Cultural Studies from Christ University, Bangalore. She loves to explore food and watch recipe reels. Her area of interest lies in the intersection of Feminism and Fat studies, and she likes to talk with her friends about diversity issues.
Featured image source: 50 Dates 50