Loneliness can lead you to strange places. It can make you desire the things that you didn't think you longed for, it can even expand your understanding of your psyche. Who knew that the two strangers from Hong Kong in In the Mood for Love would desire to break their marital vows? And would consider adultery despite knowing its immorality? These two married people crave to be more than their present personalities and to navigate different possibilities of what they can do with their lives. Just like the classic film by Wong Kar-wai, the tale from The Lunchbox is borne out of loneliness. Two lonely strangers find solace in one another in ways that were unimaginable to them until then.
Saajan Fernandez is a widower who works at a government office and is opting in for early retirement. Ila is a married woman, a housewife who spends her time enjoying her cooking endeavours and conversing with her neighbour, Mrs. Deshpande. Their paths intersect in a serendipitous situation. Without having met or seen how the other person looks, they find a deep connection.
There is a certain sense of mundane regularity in both their lives. Their absent spouses become the common thread that connects them on an emotional level. Saajan feels a certain disconnect from the world that comes along with not just the age but with the empty house without his wife. The loneliness in Ila's life comes due to the lack of any sort of response from her husband despite making constant efforts to make him emotionally connect with her.
The solemn atmosphere in their routines gets a hint of melody when they cross paths; merely knowing one another's presence in the world becomes enough. Their letters appear to represent a longing for connection more than the longing for romance. What they find is a joy that fills the void in their lives. Just like In The Mood for Love, they are seen only fiddling with the idea of romance without acting upon it. They do not indulge in cliches of romance, we do not see them perform any grand gestures. The relationship's beauty is derived from the possibility they pose for each other, the emotional strength they provide to escape the mundanity, and the idea of leading a different life altogether.
The food prepared by Ila communicates the love she puts in it. Yet, it needs someone to notice and make an effort to appreciate these little details, to fill the gap of reciprocation in communication. In the end, isn't communication what we need to sustain love or a relationship? Wasn't it the lack of this reciprocation that made both Ila and Sajan miserable in their lives? The film intersects these elements in a manner that feels more romantic than the grandest romances can ever be. Finding beauty in the mundane is the film's success.
Besides both of them, the city that they inhabit plays in itself a great role in the narrative. A yearning to connect feels more poetic in the mechanicalness of the vast landscape of Mumbai. As a writer, Ritesh Batra certainly makes the city an integral part of the script – reminiscent of how In the Mood for Love weaves its tale intricately in Hong Kong – in a way that is just as convincing and enchanting.
Irrfan presents Saajan's introversion with restraint and naturalism. Walking through the Mumbai streets, riding through the crowded local trains, and working in his office, he presents a highly convincing portrait of a salaried man who likes to keep to himself. Irrfan elevates Saajan's character with subtle enhancements to bring out his idiosyncrasies. Think of the scene where Saajan receives a letter for the first time. The way Irrfan looks around to notice whether anyone is looking at him, a mix of awkwardness and a feeling of being caught up in mischief reveals much subtext. The time he visits his colleague's house and mentions Ila as his girlfriend, the same mischievous smile shines on his face. Saajan's character arc comes alive for us through Irrfan's masterful act. And The Lunchbox derives its charm from his act just as much through its conception of love.