There are movies you love and movies you hate, but most fall somewhere in between. “The Lunchbox,” the debut film from Indian director Ritesh Batra, falls near the top of a list of those in-betweeners.
By Noah Gittell
There are movies you love and movies you hate, but most fall somewhere in between. “The Lunchbox,” the debut film from Indian director Ritesh Batra, falls near the top of a list of those in-betweeners. It is not flashy, but its small, measured tale of adults looking for connection in a bustling metropolis sneaks up on you, and while it never quite blossoms into greatness, it doesn’t need to. Not all stories are large, and “The Lunchbox” shows that small, personal films – without high stakes or political context – are still valuable.
Although made by and (presumably) for Indians, “The Lunchbox” is built with Hollywood DNA. The film’s broad strokes may feel familiar — its plot is reminiscent of “You’ve Got Mail” and “The Shop Around the Corner” — but a trio of strong performances and a remarkable show of restraint from the young director give it a unique and lasting flavor.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a lonely Mumbai housewife who is trying to improve her cooking in order to win back the attention of her disaffected husband. Every day, a courier picks up a lunch she has made for him and delivers it to his desk, but one day, it gets mixed up with a restaurant’s delivery, and it ends up on the desk of Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a lonely widower on the verge of retirement. Saajan knows nothing of good cooking, so he appreciates what Ila’s husband does not, and after he returns the lunchbox with a note of appreciation, she begins cooking him something special every day. More importantly, the two begin passing more personal notes back and forth to each other in the lunchbox, and day-by-day, a tenuous romance begins to emerge.
For a first-time director, Batra shows immense confidence in the story and his ability to tell it. He builds the characters’ inner emotional lives slowly over the film’s first hour; the revealthemselves slowly to us and to each other. The languid pace feels startlingly unfamiliar. One reason is that our romantic comedies are usually much snappier, but so are our lives. By communicating through written notes, Saajan and Ila are conversing with an antiquated technology. They are like two lovers in a Victorian Age novel, falling in love by reading each other’s written innermost thoughts. Although “The Lunchbox” has been marketed as a film about food – a la “Big Night” or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” – the lunchbox itself is just a red herring.
While Khan and Kaur gives subtly effective performances as the reserved pair of would-be lovers (Kaur in particular should be a star immediately), another character nearly steals the movie out from under them. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Saajan’s trainee, Shaikh, who is introduced to the film as an obstacle for Saajan to overcome: annoying, sycophantic, and not particularly competent. Over the course of the film, however, Shaikh changes dramatically in our eyes and eventually reveals himself as a hero. He is vulnerable, sensitive, and open to happiness in all the ways that Saajan no longer is.
It is these modest values that separate “The Lunchbox” from the kind of sappy Hollywood romantic comedies that it will inevitably compared to. Its characters are not a natural romantic coupling, and the movie knows it. It doesn’t cram them into a cliché-ridden love affair, nor does it offer them that big romantic moment in the finale. In other words, the film doesn’t impose itself on the audience; it merely presents its story, and like its characters, asks that you meet it halfway. “The Lunchbox” is not a recipe for a box-office juggernaut, just a simple and true story that was prepared with care.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue