Dabba (The Lunchbox) by Ritesh Batra is an exquisite, bittersweet ode to love and longing from India, that makes your heart sing. A debut feature that screened at the Cannes Film Festival, it won the Grand Rail d'Or Award in the International Critics' Week section.
Dabba is a very Indian film -- more specifically, an independent Bombay, but emphatically not Bollywood, film. It is also remarkably non-Indian in ways few Indian films can boast of: multi-national co-production including Sikhya Entertainment, Dar Motion Pictures and NFDC (India), ASAP (France), Rohfilm (Germany), Cinemosaic (US); multi-national crew from India, Germany, France and the US; international sales (Match Factory, Germany; a coup for an Indian film), and it has sold in 27 territories worldwide, including North America (Sony Pictures Classics), UK and France.
The confident voice of new Indian cinema, it is a 'glocal' triumph, with the potential to reach global, not just non-resident Indian (NRI) overseas audiences, though the Indian distributor is yet to be inked in at the time of writing. Dabba shines the spotlight on India, but its wistful, sublimated emotions are in marked contrast to Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding (we won't even discuss Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, as he's British).
Set amid Bombay's dabbawallas -- who deliver thousands of lunchboxes sent by Bombay housewives to their husbands at the office -- Dabba is about an old-fashioned, but contemporary romance that grows entirely through notes in the lunchbox. It features Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi), Nimrat Kaur (Peddlers; which was at Cannes) and Nawazuddin Siddique (Gangs of Wasseypur, Cannes).
A wrongly delivered lunchbox connects Saajan Fernandes (Khan), a dour insurance man and widower who is about to retire, with Ila (Kaur), a young mother whose husband is unfaithful. They secretly share confidences, until they decide to meet. Batra's screenplay cleverly plays on the suspense of whether they will get together in the end, shoring up his story with subplots with emotional heft, including the pesky office guy Shaikh (Siddique), to whom Fernandes unexpectedly becomes family. Many women, trapped in dead-end relationships, find redemption, including Ila's neighbour -- a wonderfully feisty Bharati Achrekar, only heard, never seen.
The film has many funny and thoughtful observations ("We forget things, if we have no one to tell them to"). In linking the Hindu Ila with the Christian Fernandes and the Muslim Shaikh, Batra also explores Mumbai's cosmopolitanism and ambiguous modernity: Shaikh lives with his Muslim girlfriend, yet she will marry only with her dad's permission.
Khan, Kaur and Siddique deliver first-rate, nuanced performances. The cinematography wonderfully captures the rhythms of Mumbai's people and their emotional lives, and the editing keeps a gentle pace. The music offers a rousing finale with the dabbawallas' prayers over the staccato of the train's wheels. Some may be disappointed by the ambiguous end. Yet, it is imbued with a poignancy that lingers, along with the lovely line: sometimes, even the wrong train can take you to the right destination
Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals, and Curator to festivals worldwide. Her email is email@example.com.
Review originally published in slightly different form in July 2013. The Lunchbox opens in select theaters in the U.S. via Sony Pictures Classics on Friday, February 28. Visit the official U.S. site for more information.