REVIEW: “The Lunchbox”

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“The Lunchbox” is a breath of fresh air – a smart and thoughtful romantic drama made for adults who are tired of the flimsy, schmaltzy genre norm. Much like the horror and comedy genres of late, romance films have been significantly shortchanged particularly from Hollywood. Lazy writing and poor concepts plague the majority of these movies which have the intelligence and romantic energy of a rock. That’s why I love it when a filmmaker comes in and reminds us of how good these movies can be when done right.

In this case it’s Indian writer and director Ritesh Batra. Several of his short films have hit the festival circuits but “The Lunchbox” is his feature film debut and it’s a good one. This isn’t a standard Hollywood production although it does occasionally dance close to cliche. But Batra always reigns in the material and never crosses the line into contrived and overwrought sentimentality. He handles his story with a delicate and deliberate touch, building up his two central characters and drawing his audience to them.

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The film takes place in Mumbai and our two main characters are introduced to each other through the city’s renowned dabbawalahs. It’s a complex lunch delivery system where women cook lunches then have them picked up and delivered to workers around the city. Bicycles, scooters, and trains are all used to transport the lunch boxes throughout Mumbai. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a wife, a mother, and an excellent cook. She begins sending out a lunch box thinking it will go to her husband. Instead it’s inadvertently delivered to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a government office worker.

The delivery mistake leads to a back-and-forth correspondence between Saajan and Ila via small notes left in the lunch box. Both are hurting souls who find a type of release through their written conversations. Saajan has been rudderless since his wife died. He’s simply going through life’s motions without anything ahead of him other than his early retirement. Ila is a lovely woman with an adorable daughter, but her husband’s hurtful negligence leaves her feeling alone and depressed. They both are people with significant voids in their lives.

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This could have easily turned into a sappy run-of-the-mill story, but that never happens. Ritesh Batra is very interested in his characters and they never drown in mushy maudlinness. Instead Ila and Saajan are living, breathing people and their lives and emotions never feel scripted. Some of that is due to the heart and authenticity we see in the two lead performances. Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur are superb. But it’s also due to Batra’s commitment to his vision for the film. He is very calculated in his structure and pacing. It’s a slow-building story. The humor is strategic and subtle. The emotions are earned.

In the end “The Lunch Box” encourages us to love and to allow ourselves to be loved. To not be swallowed up by the emptiness of our circumstances, but to open ourselves of to the possibilities still in front of us. These concepts are told to us through a sweet, delicate, and earnest movie from a truly promising first time feature filmmaker. This is a delightful film filled with thoughtfulness and genuine feeling. I knew nothing about “The Lunchbox”. It turned out to be one of my favorite discoveries of 2014.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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26 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Lunchbox”

    • Thanks so much Cindy. GREAT to hear from someone familiar with this movie. I think it came out in India last year but 2014 here in the States. It is absolutely worth renting. I so enjoyed it.

  1. With all due respect, I’ll take romantic Bollywood greats like Devdas or even DDLJ any day over this stuff. I have a bone to pick with this sort of sentiment in your first paragraph: “A breath of fresh air.” I admit I liked parts of the Lunchbox and I’m a big fan of Irrfan Khan, but the thing people need to realize is that these “unique,” quaint indie-style films are often every bit as cliched and boring as most of the big budget mainstream productions they’re supposedly trying to rebel against. Indie films like these always center around dysfunctional families, quirky misfit outcasts, and an enormous amount of pretentiousness that their bigger, supposedly dumber counterparts refreshingly lack.

    Independent filmmaking used to be this edgy, gritty format. Back in the ’80’s stuff like David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ were the image of the non-major studio movie, and it’s since devolved into overrated, sanitized “mainstream-sidestream” hits like American Beauty, Nebraska, Juno, and the like. Hindi-Indies like The Lunchbox are simply the South Asia equivalent of that. At least Bollywood films are fun and exciting, and moreover I’d argue that movie spectacle and moving bodies are inherently more cinematic than endless, dry dialogue about yet another Indian wife whose husband takes her for granted.

    In other words, I don’t think films like The Lunchbox are a breath of fresh air at all but rather a different type of stale, overused air. Films like these are the cinematic equivalent of hipsters —- they try so hard to rebel against a perceived inferior norm with a distinct air of undeserved, unearned superiority, and have essentially become part of the mainstream at this point. Sure they’re not playing at every wide release theatre, but they’re playing at every single art theatre at the expense of equally or greater talented independent genre (i.e. non-family drama) films and generally sweep awards circuits every year.

    On the flipside, I loved your rhetoric and prose on this review. Technically this is one of your best reviews I’ve read, I just completely disagree with your content and ultimate conclusion 😛

    • Wow. I truly do appreciate your passionate response I’m glad you took the time to read and express them. I’m completely genuine when I say it means a lot to me when people do read and respond. Here’s just a few words…

      I don’t watch much Bollywood. I don’t know Devdas from DDLJ. But I do know the run-of-the-mill nonsense that Hollywood churns out on an annual basis. Therefore I did find this to be a breath of fresh air within that context.

      As for the status of independent film, I agree with you to a point. But honestly I don’t hold independent cinema to any strict guidelines or expectations, and I have found that often times for my taste independent cinema falls just as flat as mainstream blockbusters do.

      As for this particular film, I never got the sense that it was trying to rebel against anything. From my perspective it was simply trying to tell it story. Maybe there were deeper motivations behind it but I never picked up on them at all and they never influenced my experience with the picture.

      To go a bit further, I think The Lunch Box works because there are no forced motivations behind it. I connected to it because I loved the characters, I believed in them, and the story was unfolded in a way that never felt contrived or false. I also appreciate that it doesn’t give us those normal “big” payoff scenes. I appreciate its slow and deliberate pacing. I appreciate the room given for the actors to work. I agree, there is a degree of polish to the film, but I never felt it to be a liability.

      You mentioned a number of compelling things. One thing you pointed out was dysfunctional families being the norm today. Interestingly, a few years ago when I wrote on a different site I did a piece talking about nearly every movie family being either broken or highly dysfunctional. Regardless of the genre, it seemed like that was becoming the norm. I actually took some heat for that, but it has certainly been the case. And now several years later nothing has changed and perhaps I’ve just grown cold to it. Still I don’t think it hurts The Lunchbox in any way.

      Anyway, again thank you for the comments and the passion behind them. Plus I have a couple of new filmmakers I can look up. I always appreciate that. 😉

      • I definitely think we agree far more than we disagree, but I guess my final recommendation would be to check out some mainstream Bollywood blockbusters and see how they compare both to American Hollywood blockbusters, American “independent” film, and also films like the Lunchbox. Try out Sanjay Bhansali’s ‘Devdas’ (2002) first, you might really enjoy it 😀

      • Unfortunately I don’t believe it is. I think you can stream it on Amazon though. That’s a problem with many Indian films — save for the really recent ones released in the past 5 years or so, much of the quality of home video copies either leave a lot to be desired or are almost nonexistent. I’d recommend torrenting it if you have the patience for more acceptable quality. I believe the industry is slowly but surely turning to HD (i.e. Blu Ray) technology.

        Other good modern classics to check out would be 3 Idiots (2009) or Diwale Dulhania La Jayenge (1995). The former is more of an Americanized/Westernized Bollywood hit (less melodramatic soap opera acting, less emphasis on musical numbers, etc.) but it’s arguably the best Bollywood film for newcomers because it gives the least culture shock, and to that end it’s a film that’s nearly impossible not to like, and the latter is probably the best summary of the modern industry as a whole (if you want the best “cultural sampling” as it were), sporting every single good and bad cliche that mainstream India loves. I know for a fact you can find those two on Netflix DVD and on BluRay/streaming elsewhere…

      • This is great. Thanks again. I love being opened up to new filmmakers, genres, and especially areas of cinema like Bollywood which I know so little about (to my shame).

  2. Nice review , Keith 🙂 it’s a pleasure to read about an Indian film on your blog .

    The Lunchbox was listed at No. 1 in my ” Best Indian films of 2013 ” post ! [ http://wp.me/p2z7vI-1Xf ] & iv’e written a long piece on it but in my regional language that’s not English obviously !

    • Thanks so much. This film really grabbed me. I loved the characters and that always is a plus. I really appreciated the films focus and its genuine heart. So glad I saw it.

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  4. I found Lunchbox to be just another Rom-com that Hollywood otherwise produces. There are these two characters, each living in their own melancholic lives and then there’s this correspondences through letters. Personally I didn’t enjoy the movie much. The only fresh air for me was the conversations between Irfan and Nawazuddin, his new colleague. But I appreciate you watching an Indian film and liking it. if you ever need any recommendations, do let me know, I’d be delighted to do so.

    • Thanks for reading and I definitely resoect your take on it. And I’m always open to learning of new filmmakers.

      I really latched onto this film bevause I immediately cared about the lead characters. There is indeed a feeling of melancholy but it felt earned to me. It never felt contrived. But I can see where the movie wouldn’t work as much if you didn’t get that attachment.

  5. Same thing happened with me with The Lunchbox; I couldn’t have known less about a film I was going to sit down and watch in a theater and I came out of it elated. This was a great film but it unfortunately just missed my year-end Top Films list(s). I think I got lucky and saw quite a few smaller films and indie releases that this just didn’t have much of a chance.

    • It was definitely a treat, wasn’t it? I’ve had some great responses from those who are much more knowledgable about Indian cinema. They had different experiences than I did. Still, I’m a big fan of this picture.

      • Yes if I may, I was actually browsing through some of those above and thought they made some very interesting observations. Perspective seems to count for a lot when talking about entirely different film industries. Bollywood is also something I know very little about given my extremely limited experience with those films, so I’d imagine ‘The Lunch Box’ might come across very differently if you’re constantly exposed to those types of films. Still, I’m with you all the way. I loved what this film did, which was primarily opening up my eyes to this lunchbox delivering system. At the very least I found this film educational in that way

  6. The pivot of the plot, for this story is the dabbawallas. They deliver a huge number of lunchboxes back and forth everyday, without a mistake. The concept is of “one in a million” (That’s the number of mistakes they make). The impact of that “one in a million” mistake is what leads to this story. 🙂 For more statistics, please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dabbawala#Six_Sigma_myth, if you haven’t already. I loved the movie, and I love this review! especially, “It’s a slow-building story. The humor is strategic and subtle. The emotions are earned.” Perfectly summarised.

    Also, thank you for your like on my blog! 🙂

    • Hey thanks so much for the blogs and insight. I was amazed by the dabbawallas. Their system, their efficiency. It was something I knew absolutely nothing about.

      It took me a while to finally be able to see the film but I’m so glad I did.

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