Ila’s (Nimrat Kaur) marriage is on shaky ground and she fears that she may lose her husband, Rajeev (Nakul Vaid). So, she prepares a delicious noontime repast and sends it via a delivery service, hoping to get her husband’s attention once again. The service makes a rare mistake and delivers the food, instead, to a lonely, nearing retirement widower Sajaan (Irrfan Khan) who will come to appreciate, in many ways, “The Lunchbox.”
Do not expect a lot of excitement and action in this charming film about a tiny delivery mistake made by a Dabbawalas – the lunch delivery service ferrying the traditional multi-tiered Indian lunchboxes to the office workers of Mumbai. Ila sends her very specially prepared lunch to her husband when the mix up occurs and Sajaan gets the delicious food instead. The next day, the mistake is made again and Ila and Sajaan begin to correspond via the lunchbox. This begins a series of heartfelt communications as each opens up to the other to tell their hopes and fears of life.
This is the first feature film by writer-director Ritesh Batra but the quiet lyricism of the story, the near hypnotic journey of the titular box as it travels back and forth through Mumbai, and the creditable acting chemistry by the prolific Irrfan Khan (“Life of Pi,” “Slumdog Millionaire”) and his never face-to-face costar Nimrat Kaur belies the helmer’s newness to the industry. The quality of the story and Batra’s deft skill at telling that story makes this a special film. It is not a tweenie film but one that address real adult issues – a man facing a retirement he is not ready for, a woman who knows she is losing her husband to another. It is also about two people finding each other through a simple delivery mistake. I give it a B+.
For 120 years, 5,000 Dabbawallahs in Mumbai have been delivering home cooked meals to office workers using a coding system which a Harvard University study assessed as being accurate 999,999 times in a million. When pretty young housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) tries to regain the attentions of husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid) with an elaborately prepared meal, though, hers is that one that is misdelivered and she begins an intimate correspondence with the widower who receives "The Lunchbox."
Cowriter (with Rutvik Oza)/director Ritesh Batra has fashioned a lovely romance of the correspondent genre ("I Sent a Letter to My Love," "84 Charing Cross Road") which at once feels very nostalgic yet also modern with its two lonely protagonists finding expanded horizons beyond their enclaves in a sprawling Mumbai. Batra's film is also rich with detail, not only in the inner lives of two very different people but in Indian cuisine, train travel, office life, cultural divides, Mumbai's neighborhoods and the obstacles presented on the paths to true love.
His opening scene is delightful as Ila juggles ingredients and pots with assistance from her upstairs Auntie (Bharati Achrekar). They communicate by shouting out their kitchen windows, passing foodstuffs in a basket on a pulley. Batra shifts to a documentary style to educate in the truly mind-boggling delivery system of the Dabbawallahs, then falters a bit trying to surprise us when the man who returns home that evening isn't the man who delighted in Ila's lunch (one can see this coming a mile away, even knowning nothing about the film).
Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan, "Slumdog Millionaire") is a taciturn man avoiding training his imminent replacement, the seemingly obsequious, brown-nosing Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), especially now that his only focus is on his midday break. Having complimented the befuddled restaurant in his Christian neighborhood of Ranwar, all becomes clear the next day when he receives a note from Ila along with his lunch, talking about how it had been meant for her husband. His reply? 'Needs more salt.' Ila, is, of course, incensed, but over time, the two begin to confide in each other. Meanwhile, the persistent Shaikh follows Saajan onto his commuter train and also begins to break down Saajan's defenses. Shaikh also loves to cook - and also has a complicated romance. But Shaikh is determined to marry Mehrunnisa (Shruti Bapna) despite her family's objections and Saajan finds himself taking the young man under his wing. If only he could see beyond his own impediments towards happiness. As Shaikh tells him, 'Mother always said the wrong train can bring you to the right station.'
And it is with this bit of wisdom that Batra concocts his hopeful, fanciful ending. Khan and Kaur may be distanced by age, religion and marital status, but these two actors have created such a spiritual bond despite physical separation, one is left hoping Saajan has boarded the wrong train. The melancholy spirit of David Lean's "Brief Encounter" floats overhead like the smoke from a train's stack, but the winds of change are in the air.
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