FILM REVIEW: The Lunchbox
A delicious treat to wash away the taste of prefab Hollywood love stories, The Lunchbox is a film to savour. The independently produced, mainly Hindi-language film is set in Mumbai and revolves around the relationship between Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a neglected housewife, and Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), an accountant and widower near retirement. Two strangers in a city of 13 million, they are connected by Mumbai's legendary lunchbox service.
Every morning, dabbawalas (meal couriers) pick up steaming hot lunches from homes and restaurants. Packed into snug, metal, tiffin containers, the freshly cooked meals make the trip from kitchen to bike to train and, eventually, to offices filled with desk-bound recipients.
One of the many, slow-cooked pleasures of Ritesh Batra's direction is the way he lovingly documents that journey. Like the canoe from Paddle to the Sea, we watch the trek of Ila's brightly coloured lunch bag for her husband, which arrives at the desk of standoffish stranger Saajan.
Irrfan Khan appears as Saajan in a scene from The Lunchbox (Michael Simmonds/Sony Pictures Classics)
Mumbai's lunchbox service is world-famous for somehow never confusing customers. Except in this instance, when the dabbawalas do make a mistake. When Saajan returns the containers practically licked clean, Ila thanks him for the compliment with a lovingly made paneer, stirring luxurious dollops of yogurt into her simmering pan.
Like an old-fashioned version of You've Got Mail, a correspondence is born: notes and meals travel back and forth. Ila complains about her husband and her isolation. Meanwhile, Saajan listens and shares stories of his own, slowly emerging from his shell with each daily delivery. Whether it's letters or lunches, Batra builds up a delicious anticipation.
Other characters round out the story, including Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an eager office worker and orphan who is to replace the outgoing accountant. While Saajan works to dodge this workplace intruder, Ila gives Auntie — the older woman living in the flat above — a daily update. For the audience, she's just a husky voice who dangles a basket of spices outside Ila's window, but it's still a critical ingredient.
Nimrat Kaur as Ila in The Lunchbox (Michael Simmonds/Sony Pictures Classics )
Almost equally as important to the film is the character of Mumbai itself, which Barta captures with a documentarian's eye, offering rich visuals and soundscapes of trains, trolleys and chanting couriers. Although The Lunchbox is an Indian film from a native-born director, it benefits from an outsider's eye in a way.
Barta, who studied film while he was living in the United States, found crews and his funding for The Lunchbox abroad, when he discovered he couldn't tell the story he wanted working within the Indian studio system.
In a conventional Bollywood production, the tale of Ila and Saajan would likely be an overwrought, yet undoubtedly amusing tale told in song and dance. But the quiet virtues of Barta's The Lunchbox rest in its romantic restraint and the music the bustling metropolis provides as counterpoint to the central pair. A film that's a feast for the senses, The Lunchbox suggests an exciting way forward for Indian cinema. Oh, and if you go, plan for a big meal afterwards.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5
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