by Sam Fragoso
There comes a point in nearly every relationship, romantic or otherwise, where a bout of stagnation nestles in. Such a stasis is seldom planned or desired; it simply comes to fruition, often without warning. As the matriarch of a family, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is no exception. In an attempt to rejuvenate her marriage, she decides to use a new recipe in making her husband’s coveted lunch. Like The Lunchbox, Ila does not make the type of grand gestures we’re accustomed to receiving from tacky Hollywood fare. Director Ritesh Batra poignantly keeps in mind that in love, it’s often the little things that count.
Unfortunately, Ila’s carefully crafted culinary gesture is not received by her emotionally distant husband (Nakul Vaid). Instead the home-cooked meal is mistakenly delivered to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), another accountant in the office. On the verge of retirement after 35 years of loyal service, Saajan accepts the enigmatic lunch. Surprised by the lack of response from her husband, Ila instead receives a letter from Saajan (upon receiving yet another meal the following day). A few simple words sets in motion a series notes between the two of them.
In the beginning these missives contain the type of conversation we all have when meeting someone new. Saajan evaluates each meal he receives, complimenting her where her husband has failed to do so. Small banter eventually escalates as Ila slowly reveals her increasing disenchantment with her marriage. Through narration by Khan and Kaur, we see a romance blossoming as the two begin to share more intimate thoughts – regrets, memories, joys, and pains.
At night we watch Saajan, now a widower, sitting out on the porch smoking his nightly cigarette, peering through the neighbor’s window. He sees a family eating at a dinner table, praying before the meal and laughing during it. This reminds him of what he used to have and what he no longer does. The conversations between himself and Ila quite clearly serve as a respite to the ennui and loneliness that too often accompanies one’s “Golden Years.”
The Lunchbox operates without any sort of visual panache or ostentatious editing tactics. Shot on location in Mumbai, Batra seems to be more focused on telling the story he wrote, and does so coherently and subtly. That’s not to suggest the film is dour or dull. It’s actually quite the opposite as the two leads do a wonderful job imbuing naturalism into their characters. How refreshing it is to see two adults with distinguishable (and identifiable) features and fears up on the screen. These two veteran Indian actors deliver the type of performance we don’t typically praise in this country. They didn’t not lose a jarring amount of weight for their roles, nor do either of them inhabit a transgender drug addict or an amoral stockbroker. The film relies on them to provide humanism, not histrionics. They deliver in spades.
On the outset The Lunchbox appears to be yet another pleasant, but picayunish indie film destined to appease its niche audience before fading into oblivion. Perhaps that will remain true come the film’s theatrical release, but I contend this is a film not exclusively made for adults. Now more than ever we live in an age where a great deal of young people embark on virtual relationships vicariously through text messaging and Facebook chats. This form of communication can be likened to what Ila and Saajan are engaging in. There’s a freedom, excitement, and comfort in conversations (either through handwritten letters or online chatting) where you have time to choose your words carefully, and can be perhaps more confident or vulnerable than you are in person. There are no immediate consequences to words typed or written when you’ve yet to meet the person on the other end.
Of course, as consumers systematically trained by Hollywood, we’ve come to expect that at some point during The Lunchbox Ila and Saajan will meet, share a life-altering kiss, and then run off into the sunset together. Thankfully, Batra has no interest in falling down such a rabbit hole. In fact, no one articulates the issue better than Saajan when he glibly notes, “There is no value for quality in this country.” It’s a line of dialogue that, considering the state of mainstream contemporary cinema, rings tragically true. However, there is hope, especially when given a film like The Lunchbox. Batra’s directorial debut is no monumental step forward in the medium, but it does belong to a rare breed of movies that embraces the prospect of new and unforeseen love wholeheartedly, without cynicism or superficiality.
The Upside: Naturalistic dialogue; seamless editing; every performance; Batra’s confident direction; Mumbai setting
The Downside: Running time could be, in theory trimmed; Shifting focus on some of the more dynamic, intellectually challenging elements of the film could’ve resulted in a great film; Mumbai locale could’ve been explored more
On the Side: A slight controversy erupted when India chose The Good Road as their Oscar submission over the higher profile and more acclaimed The Lunchbox.