Equal parts romantic and realistic, “The Lunchbox” moves beyond a meet-cute premise to deeply thoughtful storytelling.
Talented rookie feature director Ritesh Batra starts with a high concept, then molds time and circumstance to complement it.
“Lunchbox” connects a neglected Mumbai housewife (Nimrat Kaur) with a stranger (Irrfan Khan) through a mistake in Mumbai’s dabbawala lunch-delivery system.
Make that a highly unlikely mistake. Harvard researchers who studied the real-life dabbawala system, in which white-coated men deliver homemade meals to office workers via bike and commuter train, found it uncannily accurate. Using a complex coding system, the dabbawalas successfully deliver hundreds of thousands of hot lunches per day.
They don’t use computers, and neither do most characters in “Lunchbox.” Batra sets the story in today’s Mumbai but fudges matters of technology to better impart the old-fashioned idea of Ila (Kaur) and Saajan (Khan) coming together through fate.
It’s easy for strangers to become friends through the Internet. It’s harder to do it through unlikely dabbawala error and a subsequent exchange of paper notes via lunchbox.
Batra flaunts his script’s Hollywood (and Bollywood) devices by having a character mention how most people email instead of write letters today. But Batra invests his film with such emotional authenticity that its contrivances delight instead of distract.
“Lunchbox” opens with Ila and Saajan both in dire need of the unexpected to enter their lives. Ila, who is in her late 20s or early 30s, shares an apartment with her young daughter and businessman husband, Rajeed (Nakul Vaid), who mostly ignores her. (As close to a villain as this gentle film offers, Rajeed also is the only character noticeably glued to a cellphone).
Ila’s main source of adult company is an elderly upstairs neighbor with whom she communicates through open windows. The neighbor uses a basket on a rope to deliver Ila spices for a special hot lunch Ila is preparing. Ila hopes the meal, to be delivered to Rajeed’s office by the dabbawalas, will help win back Rajeed’s affections.
A dabbawala returns the lunchbox that afternoon completely empty – unusual for Rajeed. Yet when he returns home that evening, he acts like nothing special happened. That’s because the lunch was delivered instead to Saajan, a claims adjuster (he still uses paper and a calculator) and widower on the eve of early retirement.
Ila floats a note in the lunchbox to see who is gobbling her food. When she receives a response, intrigue enters her humdrum life.
Scenes of paneer bubbling on Ila’s stove, and of her carefully placing the different dishes into metal containers, will make you want to taste her cooking. But “Lunchbox” is not food porn.
Saajan enjoys this stranger’s dishes, but he craves her notes. Through these missives, which start out innocuous and grow more intimate, Saajan and Ila forge a bond.
Kaur is great at registering small pleasures, as when Ila shakes the lunchbox, returned by a dabbawala, and hears nothing but air and metal. But the actress also ably shows the cloud hanging over Ila’s middle-class life as the young wife reassesses a marriage that now seems doomed.
Kaur is subtle, but co-star Khan defines the term. A tiny display of emotion goes a long way on Khan’s ( “The Namesake,” “Life of Pi”) often grave face.
Call it charisma or an ability to radiate intelligence, but Khan possesses that thing that makes you want to know what he’s thinking. You hang on every blink, every turn of head. When Saajan furtively looks around his company’s lunch room to ensure his co-workers cannot pick up on his excitement about receiving a note, it’s the Khan equivalent of jumping for joy.
Batra brings great insight into the different stages of life, and shows how Ila’s and Saajan’s current stages mirror each other. As Ila struggles to hold on to hope, Saajan rediscovers his.
Ila is just now absorbing the knowledge that life entails some big emotional hits. Saajan, by contrast, long ago resigned himself to a dreary, unexceptional life. Brusk with colleagues, he at first is curt in his correspondence with Ila, informing her the food is too salty. Brushing people off is a reflex. It’s easier than getting involved.
But Khan’s searching looks suggest Saajan, facing retirement without family or daily purpose, is rethinking his lone-wolf thing. Ila’s notes, and Shaikh, an eager, warm young trainee at work (a winning Nawazuddin Siddiqui), catch this man at the exact moment he becomes receptive to overtures.
An irresistible vitality surrounds Saajan, in Ila and Shaikh, in the children who play near his home (whom he shoos away, get-off-my-lawn style) and fellow workers who crowd into the commuter trains he takes.
The visual energy Batra lends to early scenes of city life carries over to later scenes set mostly indoors. The director varies the many scenes in Saajan’s office, pulling back from an intimate shot of Saajan sitting at a table to reveal dozens of fellow workers around him.
This sequence symbolizes how Saajan, who previously let himself be pushed along, emotionless, by Mumbai’s hubbub, is carving out an individual space for himself in it.
Vitality also exists within Saajan, sometimes too strongly for the story’s purposes. Khan is 47 and not made up to look much older. The actor does not fit some of the script’s indicators of his character’s age.
Saajan thinks he is far too old for Ila, yet Khan does not look it. Nor does it seem plausible when a young man gives his train seat to Saajan out of respect for his age.
Unless … Batra, who is in his mid-30s, views 47 as old. In that case, he has stretched romantic comedy conventions too far, into the horror genre.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.