“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.
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.
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.