The essence of any city is found in the way things and people move around it, and no film yet captures Mumbai’s essence as well as The Lunchbox. This is a film that is deliberate, that is purposeful, that doesn’t leave anything out but doesn’t have a single piece of set decoration that is superfluous, either. The Lunchbox shows Bombay in a way that anyone can understand and relate to, capturing that “rich sense of today’s urban melancholy, that sense of being surrounded by people yet alone.”
To do this, The Lunchbox must be a film about transportation, about the movement of dabbas and people alike, from one place to another, literally and spiritually. Even the takeaway quote – “कभी कभी गलत गाड़ी भी सही जगह ले जाती है” (“sometimes only the wrong train can take you to the right station”) – is about movement, and I don’t think you can have a truly Bombay movie (or a true urban movie set anyplace) without capturing that sense of movement in the city and in your characters, something Ritesh Batra did impeccably in this film.
At the same time that every character is constantly moving, though, they are distinctly not moving into anywhere unknown for a very long time. Saajan is only seen in his workplace, on the train home, and in his living space. He is distinctly not seen in his kitchen, which is essentially the only place Ila is seen. All of the man’s friendships are confined to his space of work, and to convince him to move a friendship out of that space is a struggle. Saajan’s work is the only thing that is truly comfortable to him, and even when he starts to make friends in his workplace – through training an underling or through notes passed through a dabba – the friendships don’t leave that gendered space.
Ila’s only friend is confined to her own kitchen as well, and the two friends are only able to communicate through shouts and a basket that move between their two kitchens safely in ways that they cannot. In fact, the only reason Ila and Saajan are able to connect is through the one way in which the male and female spaces overlap – the dabba traveling between Ila’s kitchen and Saajan’s work. The loss of this means of communication between Ila and her husband is what drives them apart, and at the same time opens up a new connection with a new friend and the opportunity to experience a movement into a new space.
The two characters are so comfortably confined to their own spaces that the only times they leave these spaces are extremely significant. Ila is pushed to leaving her comfort zone before Saajan is, since her rocky relationship with her husband invades the spaces she travels in and makes them no longer as comfortable as they once were. The first time we see Ila leave her gendered space is during the death of her father, when she leaves her own kitchen to go to her mother’s, and finds out that even her parents’ relationship didn’t cross this plane of male/female space the way her relationship with Saajan does. She is already primed to leave her space again when she goes to meet Saajan in real life for the first time, in a restaurant – a space that is about halfway between a kitchen and a workspace.
Unfortunately, Saajan can’t bring himself to meet Ila at this halfway point. He has lived comfortably confined to his spaces for so long, that it is hard for him to push himself to leave his own spaces and connect with another human being. The first time that Saajan leaves his gendered space is when he goes to his work friend, Shaikh’s, house for dinner. This is the first time we see Saajan truly letting himself connect with anyone – through his obvious connection with Shaikh, and also through Saajan calling Ila his “girlfriend”. Still, we see him doubt his decisions to leave his comfortable gendered space, going so far as seeing Ila sitting at the restaurant and then turning around – afraid to let their relationship cross into this entirely new, uncomfortable space.
Even when it comes time for Saajan to move to his retirement home, this notion is uncomfortable. He knows it is the natural next step for a man, but it takes him moving out of his comfortable gendered work space to realize that moving towards another gendered space of retirement isn’t the direction he wants to move in. If he is going to move towards a new space, he wants to move towards Ila – towards something else that he finds comfortable. Ila also has her moment of doubt, but since it’s already been established that her gendered space is now intolerable, the next logical place for a woman to go isn’t towards Bhutan – it’s towards another man. She crosses this space by going directly into Saajan’s workplace, but by the time she reaches, he had already gone. Having nowhere else to turn, Ila makes the decision to take off her jewelry, scoop up her daughter, and go to Bhutan – a decision as crazy as jumping off her roof, because it does involve killing the part of herself that is defined by the men around her. She only takes this decision because it is literally the only option she now has.
We don’t know at the end of the film if Saajan and Ila ever reach each other, or whatever other destinations they might be moving towards – which is the only way a film like this could end. The Lunchbox is about movement, and all we know at the end of the film is that both Saajan and Ila have moved to a new place emotionally and are still moving physically right now, out of their gendered spaces and into something new – whatever that may be.