Written and directed by Ritesh Batra, The Lunchbox screened at the International Critics Week at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and won the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award. Both sessions at the Sydney Film Festival sold out and it seems primed for quiet word-of-mouth success. The Lunchbox is a genuine crowd-pleasing romance, a pleasant and moving study of two isolated individuals who, by chance, find unexpected comfort in one another, and a distraction from their unsatisfying lives, through the sharing of delicious food and honest letter correspondence.
The premise for The Lunchbox is drawn from India’s extraordinarily efficient lunch delivery system. Couriers, known as Dabbawala’s, collect lunch boxes of hot food from restaurants or the residences of workers, deliver them to their workplace using a variation of bicycles and trains, before returning the empty boxes to their point of origin the very same afternoon. I watched on in awe; looked like a logistical nightmare but they are world-renowned for their organization and accuracy.
This heartwarming film, which transports a viewer to the hustle and bustle of contemporary India, tells the story of a rare casualty of the delivery system, and how the lives of two people; one a lonely accountant nearing retirement (Irrfan Khan, Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi), the other a young housewife (the beautiful Nimrat Kaur, The Peddlers) looking to win back her husband’s attention, were changed as a result.
The Lunchbox takes a little while to warm up, but it moved me very much in the end. The initial crosscutting between Ila spicing up her meals and Saajan graciously receiving his mystery lunchbox, with the letter correspondence narrated over the top, became a little bit repetitive. Both stories are also deceptively simple to begin with, but ultimately get more interesting as the film progresses. Ila is a hardworking housewife whose deflated struggle with her daily chores goes unappreciated by her distracted husband. Her closest confidant is an elderly woman who lives upstairs. They converse by shouting to each other through Ila’s kitchen window, which is both amusing and a little grating.
Saajan is constantly surrounded by commuters and his equally drone-like colleagues, but since his wife passed away he has mostly kept to himself, and is easily irritated by the behaviour of others. But, through their correspondence, they each evolve for the better. Ila feels more confident trying different ways to win back her husband’s affections, based on Saajan’s reassurances that things are never as bad as they seem, while Saajan rediscovers emotions that have eluded him for many years and finds he has something to look forward to each day.
Batra absolutely nails some stinging moments of sadness, while the finale shows admirable restraint. Saajan, while reconsidering whether he should retire and pursue a new chapter of his life in a different way, makes a profound realization that left me on the verge of tears. Khan is terrific, often required to convey emotions without saying a word. We know that the contents of the letters bring him great joy, and fluster him near speechless, but Khan reveals it through his subtle mannerisms.
Saajan’s friendship with Shaikh (an excellent Nawazuddin Siddiqui, The Gangs of Wasseypur), his polite and enthusiastic replacement whom he needs to teach his role, is another heart-warming story arc. Shaikh’s youthful exuberance, his warming optimism and positivity, eventually wins over the stoic Saajan. Admiring the life that the proud Shaikh has built for himself, considering his youth as an orphan, Saajan invites him in to his private world and even protects his young friend and protégé from his boss’s wrath. Shaikh invites Saajan to his home for dinner, proving to be quite perceptive of Saajan’s newfound swagger, asking of him an honourable favour.
There is always a place for sweet, delicately handled films like The Lunchbox in cinemas these days. With so much emphasis on sensory bombardment, charming little films like this are often overlooked. It isn’t revelatory by any means, and is perhaps a bit sluggishly paced, but it is very well performed and catches you off guard with its powerful moments and gets you thinking about the role that chance plays in day-to-day life. When you feel like you have been drained of all spirit and motivation, you can find rejuvenation, and make life-changing connections, through the most beautiful and unexpected of ways. That is what The Lunchbox celebrates.
[rating=3] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22