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‘The Lunchbox’ chronicles the search for happiness

“The Lunchbox” (“Dabba”) (2013 production, 2014 release). Cast: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Lillete Dubey, Nakul Vaid, Bharati Achrekar (voice), Yashvi Puneet Nagar, Denzil Smith, Shruti Bapna, Sadashiv Kondaji Pokarkar, Baaburao Sankpal. Director: Ritesh Batra, Screenplay: Ritesh Batra. Web site. Trailer.

Just when we think we’ve attained the satisfaction we want out of life, we sometimes come to realize that what we’ve manifested is not what we really desire. But what do we do then? Do we chance making a change to something different? But, if that doesn’t live up to our expectations, then what? Would it be safer to hold on to what we know, simply because it’s comfortable and familiar, even if it’s unsatisfying? Or would that kind of settling leave us even more unhappy in the long run? Those are just some of the questions raised in the delightful new comedy-drama from India, “The Lunchbox” (“Dabba”).

Lunchtime in Mumbai wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for the city’s dabbawallahs, delivery people who transport freshly prepared meals in cylindrical, compartmentalized lunchboxes (dabbas) from homes or restaurants to hungry office workers and return the empty containers to their sources later the same day. And, considering the huge volume of meals shipped by train and bicycle every workday, the dabbawallahs have a remarkable track record for accuracy and timeliness, something in which they take tremendous pride. But, every so often, something goes awry – which ultimately may not be an entirely bad thing, either.

Such is what happens to Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a lonely young mother and housewife who has trouble getting the attention of her preoccupied husband, Rajeev (Nakul Vaid). She tries everything, too, routinely consulting her upstairs neighbor, Auntie Deshpande (Bharati Achrekar), for advice. Ila is especially hopeful that following the time-honored adage “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” will prove successful, and, to that end, she tries out a variety of delectable recipes when preparing Rajeev’s lunch for delivery each day. But, when she doesn’t get the response she’s looking for, she’s seriously disappointed – that is, until Ila discovers that her dabbawallah (Sadashiv Kondaji Pokarkar) has been delivering Rajeev’s lunchbox to the wrong recipient.

And who has been getting the erroneous lunch deliveries? That would be Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a lonely office worker who’s nearing retirement. Having lost his wife some time ago, there’s not much that gives him joy. He feels reconciled to a bleak future, a prospect that has made him a man of few words (and most of which consist of curmudgeonly utterances at that). But that begins to change one day when he receives a delicious lunch that he wasn’t expecting. The restaurant from which he typically orders his food generally doesn’t make dishes that tasty, so, when he learns that the meals aren’t coming from there, he feels compelled to thank the mystery chef. He decides to place a note of gratitude in the empty lunchbox when it’s returned, a development that both startles – and pleases – its unsuspecting recipient.

Ila is touched by Saajan’s note, so much so that she decides to write back, thus initiating what becomes an extended exchange of messages. The unlikely pen pals engage in an unusual but intimate correspondence, sharing heartfelt details of their lives, loves and losses. They develop a profound bond, one with the potential for more than just friendly dialogue. It’s a relationship with the promise of new beginnings – as long as Ila and Saajan will allow it.

Anyone who has ever experienced the blessings that come with a cloud revealing its silver lining can appreciate the hidden benefits that arise from this story’s misdirected lunchbox deliveries. While some might view situations like the initial delivery “error” with frustration or anger, those who have the patience and open-mindedness to see what comes of them are often rewarded beyond expectations. Such “mistakes” frequently lead to the revelation of fortuitous synchronicities, events or connections that make beneficial, perhaps even miraculous developments possible.

That’s certainly the case with Ila and Sajaan. Ila is initially disappointed that her culinary efforts didn’t result in pleasing Rajeev, but she is nevertheless pleasantly surprised when she learns of Sajaan’s sincere appreciation. Likewise, Sajaan is perplexed at the arrival of his mystery lunch, but, when he sees what comes of it, he gets more than a full stomach; he also gets a new friend and a new outlook on his life, a perspective that gives him renewed purpose in an otherwise-dismal existence. Their experiences clearly reflect the wisdom imparted by Sajaan’s new office protégé, Aslam Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who cheerily observes, “Sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right station.”

So why do these “wrong” trains show up in our lives? As conscious creation practitioners well know, the reality we experience stems from the beliefs we hold. And sometimes we hold onto those beliefs a little too long, with some even hanging on well past the point of their usefulness. On some level, we may realize they no longer serve us, but we nevertheless clutch them tightly simply because they’re familiar and known, even if displeasing, an option that many of us prefer to the uncertainty of the unknown and untried. So, to move beyond these circumstances, sometimes we need to concoct conditions that seemingly force our hand, compelling us to take action to get out of situations that no longer work to our benefit. These unexpected developments usually take us by surprise, but they nearly always get our attention, prompting us to scrutinize our prevailing reality. Such assessments and realizations often hit us like a ton of bricks, causing us to acknowledge the insufficiency of what we’ve created and subsequently launching us into embracing new beliefs for manifesting a more fulfilling existence.

Again, Ila and Sajaan both know that their lives are no longer working, but they’re reluctant to take action for fear of what the consequences might be. However, they also realize that, without doing something, they’re saddling themselves with lives of perpetual discontent. So, on some level, they decide to rewrite the beliefs responsible for materializing their respective realities, and they make it seem like their new circumstances are taking them totally by surprise, a move assured to get their attention (and, one hopes, to encourage them to take action to change things).

Ideally, it would be to our benefit if we could initiate such changes consciously, with clear, open minds and full awareness of the beliefs driving our manifestations. However, until we reach a point in our personal growth and development where we’re comfortable with doing that, this “backhanded” approach may be the best option available to us. But, as long as it helps get us to where we inherently know we ought to be, then it probably should suffice, at least for now.

These kinds of scenarios also draw attention to several principles that are integral to the conscious creation process, namely, the importance of the power of choice, change and connection. For instance, given the evolution of Ila’s and Sajaan’s outlooks, it becomes apparent that happiness and contentment clearly are choices, options that they must each choose to implement in their lives through the particular beliefs they hold. They each have examples to draw from in this regard, too. Ila, for instance, witnesses the sadness that can permeate one’s life by looking at the experiences of her mother (Lillete Dubey) and of Auntie, both of whom have allowed themselves to become chained to marriages to ill husbands and lives of little fulfillment. In a similar vein, Sajaan has experienced comparable circumstances of his own, so he’s well aware of the sadness that can come to characterize one’s life. But, fortunately, he also has an inspiring example to draw from, one that runs counter to those conditions – that of his happy-go-lucky co-worker Mr. Shaikh and his fiancée Mehrunnisa (Shruti Bapna). The young couple is just starting out, and they face their share of challenges, but they also approach their lives with a joyous attitude, purposely choosing to be happy. So Sajaan comes to realize that, if they can do that, then so can he, an outlook that, by extension, rubs off on Ila, too.

The element of change runs throughout the film’s narrative as well. In fact, in many ways, it’s at the core of Ila’s and Sajaan’s story. Of course, as alluded to earlier, change won’t happen unless the protagonists are willing to allow it in their lives. And, given their circumstances, it would seem to be in their best interests for them to do so. After all, with an infinite range of probabilities always available to them, the change to something new (and, one would hope, preferable) is just a belief away. This is especially crucial for Ila, particularly when she learns the real reason why Rajeev is so distracted.

Connection is apparent in many ways also, especially in light of the “unplanned” synchronicities that unfold. No matter how seemingly unrelated the elements of one’s reality might appear, they’re nevertheless innately connected. All it takes is the right mix of beliefs to activate them and bring them into being. Where Ila and Sajaan are concerned, they should be grateful for the “mistakes” made by their dabbawallah (and give themselves a big pat on the back for coming up with suitable beliefs that helped make such “errors” possible).

“The Lunchbox” is a charming, touching, sometimes-bittersweet crowd-pleaser that’s infused with a balanced mix of both joy and melancholy. The picture is smartly written, beautifully filmed and superbly acted. Khan and Kaur are particularly noteworthy for their nuanced performances, often getting as much out of a facial expression as they do from any of the lines they deliver. Admittedly, the film’s subplots sometimes detract a bit from the main storyline, but the themes they explore also help to reinforce those of the main narrative. Writer-director Ritesh Batra has come up with a fine offering in his debut feature, one of the spring movie season’s most pleasant surprises and one that’s well worth a look.

The search for happiness often takes some unexpected turns, but, when the unanticipated joy that comes from them becomes apparent, the sense of elation is frequently heightened. What a pleasant surprise that can be! So the next time you find yourself on one of those unfamiliar trains, ride it out to its destination. It may just be the very station you’re looking for.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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