The Lunchbox: Unpacking Food As A Love Language
Image Credit: Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox

This column is part of Slurrp's weekly series, #TheSeasonedScreen, by culture writer Arshia Dhar.


GROWING UP, my mother and I barely had a functional relationship. We would mostly communicate through exasperated sighs, angry or confused stares for each other’s predicament, or simply through long and profound silences that would suddenly escalate to shouting matches. However, on a parallel track, we would communicate through food. On days we felt especially unsettled, my mother would pack my school lunch unmindfully, often forgetting a component of the meal — sometimes a missing spoon; on some others, there would be sandwiches without the ketchup; a couple of times, the rotis would come without the sabzi. On relatively calmer days, the bread would be neatly stacked with alternating layers of butter and jam. And on the rare occasion of a perfectly bright, sunny day in our two-bedroom apartment, she’d carefully pack some freshly whipped up loochi-aloor dom, my favourite.

On the other hand, if I returned home from school with a half or barely eaten lunch, she would know I’d lock myself up in my room and only emerge from it well past dinnertime. When I would polish off the entire box, she knew she could regale me with the mundane details of her day at the dinner table. Food, for my mother and I, has been a facilitator and a bridge that we could never build with words, and in 2013, when I watched director Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, I sensed a disquieting familiarity in what was unfolding on-screen.

Starring Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Lillete Dubey, the film is a poignant recital of how food is a universal language that can capture the nuances of any emotion in their most complex forms. When Kaur’s Ila — a young housewife with a school-going daughter living in Mumbai — tries to reignite the spark in her marriage with her husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid), she adds an extra dash of spices to his office lunch of daal and bhindi masala, on the advice of her neighbour, Deshpande Aunty (Bharati Achrekar). 

We never see Deshpande Aunty, and only hear her shouting instructions from the window directly above the one in Ila’s kitchen, which opens up an invisible portal only accessible to the two of them. In this space, no one else exists, as it seems to have come alive purely for their uninterrupted exchanges of words, aromas, spices, ingredients, and even dishes via a stringed basket that Deshpande Aunty drops from her kitchen window to Ila’s. “Dekhna, yeh nayi recipe tere liye kamaal kar jayegi,” Aunty confidently declares, as Ila rushes to pack her husband’s lunch, hoping for it to work its magic so she can win him back into her life.

But, on that very day, an unexpected twist of fate lands her dabba on the table of a stranger named Saajan Fernandes (Khan), a senior accountant in a private firm who is due for his retirement in a month. Fernandes is surprised to find a change in the menu of what he assumes to be the usual office canteen fare. He is even more stunned to learn that it is delicious — nothing like what he had tasted in a long time. A widower who goes back to his empty Bandra home at the end of every work day, Saajan’s chance encounter with this alien lunchbox becomes the highlight of what remains of his work life, and proves to be a welcome distraction from training his successor, a bumbling, incompetent Shaikh, played by Siddiqui.

Simultaneously, we also discover that Rajeev got Saajan’s weary old canteen lunchbox with its insipid aloo-gobi that tastes almost factory-produced. Upon the former’s return home, Ila enthusiastically inquires if he enjoyed his meal, as she received a dabba that was polished off of its contents. “Achcha tha,” comes his standoffish reply, to which she asks, “Bas achcha hi tha?”. “Haan, achcha hi tha, roz ki tarha,” says Rajeev, a second before he mentions the aloo-gobi that his wife hadn’t cooked. 

In this moment, Ila’s curiosity trumps her rationality, and instead of telling her husband that there’s been a case of misplaced dabbas, she chooses to write a letter to this stranger who had inadvertently granted her the love she had hoped for from her husband, through his gesture of returning a squeaky clean lunchbox.


The following day, after consulting Deshpande Aunty who urges her to thank this stranger, Ila leaves a note inside the container. She mentions that the lunch was meant for her husband, and on receiving a clean lunchbox the evening before, she had spent a few hours wondering if the way to a man’s heart is indeed through his stomach. “Unn ghanto ke badle, aaj bhej rahi hu paneer, merey husband ka favourite,” she signs off. But, before tucking it into the box, she is concerned about it reaching the wrong person, which this time, is her husband. “Haan, toh achcha hai na. Kal Rajeev ne kisi aur ka khana khaya, aur usey pata bhi nahi chala? Aaj toh usey pata chale!” says a rather indignant-sounding Deshpande Aunty to an Ila, who was waiting to be convinced — and she is, because for the first time ever, she had the sole attention of a person. And perhaps, it did not matter that it was not from her husband.

Food As A Balm For Loneliness

Science suggests that loneliness and hunger affect the human brain the same way, as both signal a craving for sustenance of different kinds. It’s true; every time I feel pangs of loneliness, I find myself in my bed with a bag of chips and a tall glass of syrupy soda, or at least catch myself dreaming about pizza an hour after lunch. Even the thought of food makes the din of loneliness more bearable, softening it into malleable solitude.

Loneliness marks every frame of The Lunchbox — the urban kind symbolised by the bland, featureless Brutalist buildings its characters work in and pass by every day while on their way to and from work. Much like these concrete monstrosities, the colour of loneliness is gray, and it overwhelms the screen. The only time the reds are bright and the greens are sparkling enough to pop out at you, are when they are on the canvas of food. Ila’s scrumptious curries and stuffed vegetables infuse life into the narrative and the characters alike, filling gaps that the worded script is not meant to.

In fact, her food travels through the length of the metropolis to reach a man who does not even think in the same language as her. She writes to Saajan in Hindi, he responds to her in English. She writes to him about her husband, he responds with a verdict on her food. (“The salt was fine today; the chili was a bit on the higher side. But I had two bananas after lunch, they helped to extinguish the fire in the mouth. And I think it’ll also be good for the motions. There are so many people in the city who only eat a banana or two for lunch. It’s cheap and it fills you.”) She cooks for him, he reciprocates with his banal but insightful observations on how food holds their worlds together. 


Therefore, much like Deshpande Aunty and their kitchen windows, Ila yet again gets catapulted into a parallel dimension accessible only to her through the food in her lunchbox, which allows her to reach a person and places she would have otherwise never been privy to. As for Aunty, we learn through one of Ila’s letters that life has mostly been an exhausting wait for her husband to wake up from his coma. For 15 years, Deshpande Uncle has been opening his eyes in the morning simply to stare at the ceiling fan above him. He shuts them at night and goes back to sleep, only to repeat the same routine on loop every day.

Evidently, in her own little world, Ila’s closest two confidantes are also the ones she never sees. Instead, she feels their presence through their words and voices, as her food assuages the three-way loneliness that binds them together in ways the corporeal existence of the ones she does see fails to fulfill.

Food As A Promise

And then there is Shaikh, an amusing, scatter-brained foil to Saajan’s stoic calmness, who nearly coerces the latter to take him under his wing before he hangs up his boots. Their initial few meetings, scheduled to take place at Saajan’s work desk, fail to materialise, and they eventually commence their mentor-menteeship at the canteen over lunch. When Saajan told Ila about the “many people in the city who only eat a banana or two for lunch”, he was, knowingly or unknowingly, referring to Shaikh, who unpacks an elaborate-looking package to reveal two bananas. The socioeconomic and class divisions are established right there, as Shaikh aspires to not only work like Saajan, but also eat like him.

On their first trip back home together by the formidable Mumbai local train — the universal leveller in this otherwise unequal city — Saajan finds Shaikh chopping vegetables on his suitcase to save time preparing for his meal on reaching home. Shaikh invites him to his humble apartment in Dongri — a ghettoised Muslim neighbourhood in South Bombay — for a meal of pasande (lamb meat curry), while gushing over his fiancée Mehrunissa. Her mention reminds Saajan of his dead wife and the sense of abandonment that followed her passing, which makes him accept the invitation in an attempt to alleviate the isolation that he had settled into. 

As Ila and Shaikh barge into his life with promises of a less lonely tomorrow, Saajan finds himself accepting the generosity that comes with their food. He even catches himself referring to Ila as his girlfriend, while agreeing to sign up as Shaikh’s guardian at his wedding, when the latter reveals that he is an orphan. In their company, Saajan looks forward to conversations that feed his soul besides his stomach, as opposed to when he is at home living on a diet of cigarettes smoked in the balcony of his sprawling ancestral bungalow, from where he voyeuristically watches his neighbour’s family dine together every night.


Conversely, back in Ila’s cramped high-rise flat, dinnertime is marked with pregnant, impenetrable silences by a distracted husband who seems more interested in the idiot box than in his wife, whose love language is food. He chews his dinner unmindfully, and asks her to not pack him aloo-gobi every day for lunch, as it makes him gassy. In this instance, food reveals the cracks that were lying hidden in plain sight, pushing the characters towards necessary change.

When Ila suggests having another baby on Saajan's suggestion to heal her disintegrating marriage, Rajeev says it’s too expensive a prospect to even consider. Soon enough, Ila smells another woman on his shirt, which immediately drives her to take control of her life. She writes to Saajan asking him if moving to Bhutan with her daughter would be a good idea. “Waha Gross Domestic Product nahi hai. Gross National Happiness hai. Yahan bhi aisa hota toh?” she ponders. That day, Ila receives a half-filled dabba with the words, “What if I came to Bhutan with you?”

It is at this point that she finally chooses to take the leap of faith, and proposes to meet Saajan at a restaurant in Malad. He agrees, but eventually fails at mustering the courage to face her. He sees her, young and hopeful, anxiously waiting for him at a table, drinking several glasses of water while at it, and remembers his own age. He decides he is too old for her, and writes to her the following day on receiving a stack of empty containers that voice her silence over yet another heartbreak and disappointment, loud and clear.

“Dear Ila, I got the lunchbox today, there was nothing in it, and I deserve that. Yesterday, you waited in the restaurant for me for a long time, but before that, that same morning, I forgot something in the bathroom. I went back in to get it, and the bathroom smelled the same…exactly the same as it used to be after my grandfather had been in the shower. It was like my grandfather had been there, but he had not. It was just me. Just me and the smell of an old man. I don’t know when I became old. Maybe it was that morning, maybe it was many many mornings ago…” Saajan writes. Soon after, he sets his mind on retiring in Nashik, while on the other side of town, Ila is suddenly met with her father’s demise. It is at this moment that her mother reveals to her the reality of her loveless marriage with her husband, which makes Ila’s resolve to move to Bhutan even stronger.

To say her final goodbye, she finds Saajan's office address from the dabbawala in charge of her lunchbox, and shows up at his desk that was now occupied by Shaikh, who informs her that he had moved to Nashik. Meanwhile, Saajan, now aboard the train to Nashik, reconsiders his decision, and turns back. Upon reaching Mumbai, he catches hold of the same dabbawala to find out Ila’s address, as he finally unshackles his desires from the stranglehold of his circumstances — desires that he found a vocabulary for through Ila’s love language…food. 

The Lunchbox’s creators masterfully remind us that food is not merely a metaphor for life, but sometimes, life itself. In this world, the ones who live to eat also eat to live and relive their lives, several times over.