A feel-good movie that touches the heart while steering clear of expectation, “The Lunchbox” signals a notable debut from tyro helmer-scripter Ritesh Batra. The ingredients on their own are nearly fail-proof, yet it’s the way Batra combines food with an epistolary romance between a nearly retired number cruncher and a neglected wife that hits all the right tastebuds. An indie Indian pic with the crossover appeal of “Monsoon Wedding,” it’s sure to be gobbled up by audience-friendly fests before heading into niche cinemas.
Certainly confidence among all the major Western film funds was running high, with supportive nods from Sundance Lab, Torino Film Lab, Rotterdam’s Cinemart and the Berlinale’s Talent Campus. Co-producers with major arthouse cred including Danis Tanovic, Cedomir Kolar and Karsten Stoeter further put an international stamp on a thoroughly Indian story with plenty of crossover emotional resonance. Though the title suggests yet another entry in the bloated foodie genre, Batra avoids the kind of unctuous fetishizing of food images often found in such fare.
After 35 years in the claims department, Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is about to retire. A solitary widower with a standoffish demeanor, Saajan is unabashedly based on Scrooge, running little children off his property and clinging to the past. His crowded commute, his perfunctory store-bought meals and his very joylessness stand in sharp contrast to Aslam Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the gregarious new guy being trained to take over.
On the other side of town, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) takes her upstairs neighbor’s advice and starts preparing extra-special lunches for her cold-fish spouse at work, hoping it could kickstart his interest. However, the usually flawless lunch couriers (apparently Mumbai has 5,000 of them) make a mistake, and rather than delivering to her hubby (Nakul Vaid), the lunchbox goes to Saajan. Ila realizes her carefully prepared meal went to someone else, so she puts a note in one of the compartments and receives a rather cool reply.
As the days go by, Ila and Saajan use the lunchbox notes to unburden their thoughts, relieved at having a confidante in each other. Though chaste and brief, the messages become the focus of their days, zeroing in on their loneliness and dissatisfaction with society today (they exchange appreciations of old TV shows). Batra adeptly plays on the tension of will they or won’t they meet, making good decisions based on character and situation rather than the need to uplift an audience.
Understanding the necessity of balance, the helmer adds judicious amounts of humor, especially in the form of Ila’s upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Deshpande (Bharati Achrekar, heard but never seen), whose advice shouted down from the window is reminiscent of an Indian version of “The Goldbergs.” He also subtly establishes differences in social groups, from Saajan’s Christian neighborhood to Ila’s middle-class Hindu community, revealing the crushing isolation for a young wife and mother trapped in a loveless marriage and without a job to get her out of the house.
Even before “Life of Pi,” Irrfan Khan’s face had become increasingly known outside India, and for good reason: The star has an extraordinary range and chameleon-like presence, and he nails Saajan’s spare melancholy with a deadpan delivery that shifts between droll and downhearted. Lovely Kaur is a radiant presence, matching Khan’s underplaying and getting the most out of tiny shifts of expression that register beautifully in closeups.
Batra’s understanding of visuals, in collaboration with d.p. Michael Simmonds, results in a meaningful use of space, such as the way the multi-stacked lunchbox sits at the far end of Saajan’s desk, a conspicuous tower separated from him and his paperwork. Even more important for composition and character, early scenes of Saajan’s commute have him in the middle of the packed train cars, clearly hemmed in by society, while later he’s shifted to a space by the open window, allowing him to breathe in the possibilities opening up before him.