Debutant director Ritesh Batra’s less-is-more style perfectly suits The Lunchbox: a seemingly simple story of an improperly delivered lunchbox that changes the lives of both the sender and the recipient.
Mumbai’s system of dabbawalas is one of the most fascinating systems engineered by humans, ripe for use as a movie plot device. Every day, thousands of dabbawalas (“lunchbox delivery men”, essentially) collect tens of thousands of lunchboxes filled with hot meals from residential and commercial kitchens, delivering them to offices across the city in time for lunch. Their rate of mistakes is estimated to be as low as 1-in-a-million.
Rather than let that one errant lunchbox go to waste, director Batra fashions a story in which a meal prepared by a neglected wife winds up in the hands of a curmudgeonly accountant.
When the wife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), is returned an uncharacteristically empty lunchbox one afternoon, she thinks she’s found a way to get her distracted husband, Rajiv (Nakul Vaid), to pay attention to her. When Rajiv compliments Ila on her cauliflower — a dish she didn’t prepare that day — Ila realizes that there’s been a mix up, and someone else has started receiving her food.
She includes a note in the meal she sends the next day, thanking the unknown diner for his enthusiastic appetite. The accountant, Mr. Fernandez (Irrfan Khan), sends back another empty lunchbox — and a note commenting that the food was a bit too salty.
Ila’s relationship with Fernandez develops sweetly as they gradually include more personal details in their notes. Ila’s interactions with her mystery diner are aided by her upstairs neighbor, Auntie (Bharati Achrekar): a disembodied voice whose only evidence of physical being is the basket of ingredients she lowers out of the window to Ila.
The lightness of the early relationship between the lead duo turns more serious as reality sets in. Ila is a young, married woman with a daughter, and Fernandez is just weeks away from retirement. The story ends in a more believable way than a traditional love-conquers-all romantic comedy.
(That said, I’d love to see Batra direct a traditional romcom. He’s very good with the elements of that genre present in the first half of The Lunchbox.)
Batra perfectly emphasizes the theme of urban isolation in the story:
- Rajiv won’t make eye contact with his wife.
- Ila never sees her neighbor face-to-face.
- Ila and Fernandez communicate only via written notes.
- Fernandez watches through the window as his neighbors enjoy a family meal to which he’s not invited.
- Even Ila’s parents live across town, their physical distance mirroring their emotional distance.
This sense of isolation is heightened by a soundtrack that prioritizes urban clamor over music. The sounds of trains and buses provide most of the background noise. The movie’s infrequent music is provided by the dabbawalas singing on their train ride home or by old film tunes piping down from Auntie’s window.
Still, Batra takes this notion of isolation further than he needs to by implicating marriage as one of those isolating forces. Obviously it can be, since in Ila’s case it keeps her tethered to a man who’s not interested in her. But the movie’s most prominent female characters all seem to consider marriage an institution of diminishing returns for wives, as love quickly fades into resentful caretaking. Perhaps it’s more realistic than in a typical film, but it’s overkill.
The performances in The Lunchbox are wonderful. Ila and Fernandez spend a lot of time reading notes or silently deciding what to do next, yet Kaur and Khan make every moment riveting.
The supporting cast is equally terrific. Auntie is a wonderful creation, and Achrekar does so much to enliven the character without ever appearing on screen.
Though Ila provides the impetus for Fernandez to reconnect with people, his best opportunity comes through Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the eager young man hired to replace him. Shaikh needs a lot of help in order to fill Fernandez’s shoes, and Fernandez takes a long time to warm to the idea of mentoring him. Siddiqui’s great performance again proves that he’s as reliable an actor as there is.
The Lunchbox is something special, and hopefully the first of many great movies to come from a promising new director.