If The Lunchbox, writer/director Ritesh Batra’s first film, were an American, not an Indian, production, it would be a romantic comedy of the silliest degree. Kate Hudson, because she hasn’t had a McConaissance like her onetime costar yet, would be the disgruntled housewife. Maybe Gerard Butler would be the widower receiving her lunches and her letters. And eventually they would have some passionate tryst before running away together, to the joy of female viewers everywhere. Maybe Rihanna’s “We Found Love” would play during the credits or something, to applaud them for escaping their “hopeless place.” And, scene!
But what keeps Batra’s film realistic, relatable, and even somewhat tragic is how thoroughly it rejects that Hollywood (and even Bollywood, if we’re being specific to India) formula, and doesn’t suggest that happiness is right around the corner for either of its main characters. These are people stuck in the ruts and rhythms of life, lonely islands in the bustling city of Mumbai. An accident in the system brings them together, but never actually physically; their trust and affection for each other grows through letters, that outdated technology, and then is never truly consummated. There’s longing and yearning in The Lunchbox, but how you view it will depend on how you receive the conclusion: whether you think it’s a promise that will eventually be fulfilled or one that will eventually be forgotten. It’s thoughtful stuff.
The film begins with Ila (Nimrat Kaur), an unhappy housewife who, after her husband leaves for work and her daughter leaves for school, is found with nothing to do all day but have yelling conversations with her upstairs neighbor, Auntie. Auntie, who spends her days caring for her catatonic husband who spent years in a coma, shouts recipe instructions down to Ila, who thinks her cooking can lure her husband to pay attention to her. She slaves over paneer, she toasts roti bread, she packs it all up in a four-tier lunchbox and then she sends it to her husband in the city through a dabbawala, or a lunch-delivery service that is famous for its accuracy and punctuality. And when the lunchbox comes back each day, she tries to gauge it, what he ate and what he didn’t, to tweak what she makes the next day. It’s a never-ending process to her husband’s heart through his stomach, but it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.
Until one day, when the lunchbox comes back totally empty—practically licked clean—and she realizes the lunch never went to her husband at all, but mistakenly to about-to-retire government worker Saajan (Irrfan Khan). A widower who is so introverted that he moves like a ghost, barely interacting with colleagues and going through the motions of train-into-work, work, train-home-from-work, Ila’s meal begins to break him out of his monotony. The next day, he receives another lunch, this time with a note from her explaining that the meal was from her husband, but he only sends back one comment: the food was “too salty.” It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s certainly more communicating than he was doing otherwise—and the same for her, too.
So a friendship develops, through these notes, which function practically like anonymous messages in a bottle: if you threw your truth and your feelings and your honesty out into the universe, what would come back? The film moves at a good pace to bring us into Ila’s and Saajan’s growing relationship while also developing them us as individuals: we learn that Ila’s father is dying of lung cancer while her mother (Lillete Dubey, of Monsoon Wedding) suffers with taking care of him, and we learn that Saajan is a good teacher when he tries, as he’s in charge of mentoring the man replacing his position, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).
No matter how brief these scenes are, you get a solid sense of what Batra wants to convey: how family, how loneliness, how cultural expectations can batter down your self-will. It helps that Kaur and Khan can both do so much in a glance, in a look. When Ila realizes that her husband might be having an affair, her face as she smells his shirts, cycling through each of them while comprehension dawns on her, it’s a fantastic, mostly quiet scene where you see her heart breaking. The same goes for Khan as he plays Saajan smoking on his balcony each night, staring into the apartment of a happy family across the street—with their home-cooked food, with their children, with everything he hasn’t had since his wife died. Khan has always been a magnificently expressive, subtle actor, and he excels here, too.
Nevertheless, there are some issues; you get an Eat, Pray, Love sense of how food is one of the most important things in life, but that feels a little simplistic for a film that’s also dealing with death and familial abandonment at the same time. The connections don’t always work. And some of the lines are a bit too on-the-nose, like Ila and Saajan wondering, “What do we live for?” and complaining about cell phones and technology ruining human interaction. And then there’s the ending, which is a bit of an Inception twist, but in a romantic setting. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but if you’re looking for something totally declarative, The Lunchbox doesn’t deliver it.
Overall, though, this is a thoughtful little movie, one that benefits from its main performances and a nicely slow building romance. “You let me into your dreams, and I want to thank you for that,” Saajan says to Ila, and if that doesn’t have you blubbering quietly, then you’re probably a soulless monster.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Guttenbergs