Strangers Exchanging Letters (and Food) in the Award-winning Film The Lunchbox

Letters from a Stranger: Interview with The Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra

A misdelivered lunchbox paves the way for an intimate letter exchange between strangers: a neglected housewife, played by Nimrat Kaur, and a widowed office worker facing retirement, played by Irrfan Khan.

by Ada Tseng

In 2007, director Ritesh Batra set out to make a documentary about dabbawallahs, workers who transport food to and from workplaces as part of an intricately-run lunchbox delivery system in Mumbai.  After immersing himself in their world for a couple weeks, Batra became fascinated by how much these dabbawallahs knew about their clients just from picking up and dropping the lunchboxes for years, sometimes decades. Instead of filming a documentary, he found himself inspired to write his own fictional story.

“It started as movie about a woman who’s trying to fix her marriage through her cooking,” says Batra. “And then one day I thought, ‘What if she [accidentally] ended up cooking for someone else?'”

In Batra’s debut feature film The Lunchbox — which premiered to acclaim in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and has since won three Asian Film Awards (Best Screenplay, Actor, and Film) and three Filmfare Awards (Critics Awards for Best Film, Debut Director and Best Supporting Actor) — Nimrat Kaur plays a young, middle-class housewife named Ila who feels her marriage slipping away. She decides to put some extra effort into making her husband’s lunch and is overjoyed when the metal lunchbox is returned completely eaten. Assuming her husband loved her meal, she’s surprised when he barely even mentions it when he gets home from work. Turns out, it got misdelivered to an older insurance claims adjuster Saajan (Irrfan Khan) who is about to retire. She sends the stranger a letter, thanking him for finishing her food, and they begin an epistolary correspondence (through the lunchbox) that begins very casually but eventually provides them both with a much-needed outlet to discuss their deepest hopes, fears, and disappointments.

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