Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Ritesh Batra

Stars: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Nakul Vaid, Bharati Achrekar, Sadashiv Kondaji Pokarkar.

“Sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right place.”

The Lunchbox is a very unBollywood like film – it does away with the large scale colourful musical numbers and an inordinate running time, opting instead for a touch of bittersweet realism and style. Nonetheless, this touching romantic drama between two sad and lonely people played out via some delicious meals and a series of poignant letters has become a box office hit, which shows the broad appeal of a simple story.

In the crowded, teeming city of Mumbai there are 5000 dabawallahs delivering some quarter of a million lunchboxes to offices throughout the city by bicycles and trains. This complex system of delivering lunchboxes has been operating for over 120 years, and has even been studied by experts from Harvard, but how it works so efficiently and effectively is still something of a mystery. But one lunchbox occasionally gets delivered to the wrong person, and it is this anomaly that sets the film in motion.

Ila (played by Nimrat Kaur, from One Night With The King, etc) is a housewife whose husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid) has grown distant. To try to add spice to their marriage which has grown stale and routine, she cooks up an exotic dish for his lunch. But by mistake it is delivered to the desk of Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a gloomy, widowed accounts clerk in an insurance office, who is on the verge of retirement after 35 years. Saajan is also charged with training Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) an overly eager but annoying apprentice who will eventually replace him. Saajan enjoys the meal that Ila has cooked.

When Ila learns that her special meal was not delivered to her husband she writes a letter to explain what happened. Saajan is intrigued by the letter, and he responds. Thus begins an exchange of letters between the pair which gradually grow more revealing and intimate, and a friendship develops. Up until now, Saajan’s life has been one of dull, monotonous routine. He goes home after work, watches an old video of his beloved wife, and he shuns any sort of social interaction with his neighbours. But he awakens to the possibilities of life again and he finds a new spring in his step.

Ila’s disappointment and attitude to life has largely been shaped by the suicide of her brother after failing his exams. This subplot hints at the great pressure facing many individuals in this fast paced city. Ila also suspects that her husband is being unfaithful. But she soon discovers the possibility of real warmth and a meaningful connection with another person. This is a bit like an Indian variation on the tearjerker 84 Charing Cross Road, which saw Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins carry out a love affair via letters for a couple of decades.

But will this couple actually make a decision to meet? The cryptic ending leaves this possibility open for the audience to interpret.

Like a lot of other great romantic dramas, The Lunchbox relies on coincidences and serendipity, and while there is an air of contrivance about the central plot device that forges the connection between the two lonely and sad people, it will indeed be a hard heart that doesn’t go along with the flow.

The Lunchbox is the debut feature film for director Ritesh Batra, who studied economics in the US, and he initially set out to make a vastly different film. Batra actually set out to make a documentary about the dabbawallahs, but somehow the story evolved into this warm, more human tale. Batra handles the delicate and touching material with restraint and subtlety, and maintains a delicate balance between the misery of the setting with some gentle observations about the rhythms of life.

He is well served by his carefully chosen cast, who suit their beautifully drawn and nuanced characters. Khan is a veteran of Indian cinema who has found international exposure through roles in a couple of Oscar winning films like Slumdog Millionaire, Life Of Pi, and The Amazing Spiderman, and he brings a touch of authority, gravitas, reticence and vulnerability to his performance here. Kaur is also delightful and shows an affinity for comedy. Siddiqui brings some touches of humour to his role, and his initially annoying character also turns out to be more sympathetic.

The Lunchbox avoids becoming another example of food porn, although Ila’s tasty, spicy concoctions will have you wishing you had made a restaurant booking. The time frame of the story is a little hard to pin down, because the office where Saajan works seems devoid of computers and there are no mobile phones in sight.

This bittersweet romantic drama brings the teeming streets of Mumbai alive, and is steeped in the sights and sounds of this thriving and crowded city. The setting is atmospheric, and has been beautifully captured by cinematographer Michael Simmonds (Project Nim, Paranormal Activity 2, etc).



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