‘The Lunchbox’: Delectable

February 25, 2014


It took me two tries to see “The Lunchbox” (the first time was at a film festival screening that was cancelled for technical reasons) – but it was more than worth the effort.

Ritesh Batra’s moving, subtly witty and perceptive film, opening Friday in limited release, is a showcase for its two stars, the marvelous Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, who is a fresh face to me and an actress capable of the kind of interior life that Khan always brings to the screen.

She plays Ila, first seen cooking and packing a lunch in her kitchen for her husband, one of those stacking metal container sets known as a tiffin. As the opening credits roll, we see a deliveryman pick up the wrapped tiffin, add it to the dozen other lunches he also is delivering, then board a train, apparently from the suburbs into Mumbai, where it lands on the desk of Saajan (Khan), an aging insurance adjuster.

The lunch delivery system, which apparently is a huge enterprise in Mumbai, is world-famous for its efficiency. But this particular service makes a mistake: Saajan is not the intended recipient of Ila’s lunch. Both sides of the equation figure this out: Saajan because the food is so much better than what he usually receives; Ila because her husband barely registers that he has eaten something other than what Ila sent him.

“The Lunchbox” turns into an epistolary tale, as Ila and Saajan begin to send notes back and forth in the lunch. At first, it is only about the food – him complimenting her, asking for more or less spice; her talking about the food itself. Gradually, however, they begin to open up to each other, strangers at opposite ends of the lunch delivery system.

Ila, as it turns out, is the mother of a small daughter and the wife of a striving businessman who is less and less attentive at home. She helps out – and is helped by – an elderly neighbor who lives upstairs, with whom she communicates by yelling back and forth in the airshaft outside her kitchen window. She is increasingly convinced that there is a problem in her marriage – but only gradually begins to realize that she is not the one to blame.

Saajan is a widower who is about to retire. To what? He doesn’t know. His life outside the office consists of eating alone, then standing on his balcony smoking cigarettes and looking off into the distance. Is retirement only promising more of the same? With his correspondence with Ila, he begins to say out loud things he’s barely acknowledged to himself and discover a potential future he hadn’t previously imagined.

After I saw the film at the Dubai International Film Festival, I wrote, “The film is a marvel of understatement and intelligence, exploring the loneliness and regret two people are able to express to each other, perhaps because they are strangers … As one character notes, ‘Sometimes the wrong train takes you to the right station.’”

Khan, with his limpid eyes, impeccable reserve and delicious deadpan, gives one of the loveliest, most nuanced performances that I’ve seen in years. He gives the character depth, in continually surprising layers, each different from the last.

Kaur is his perfect match, as a modern woman battling centuries of almost genetically ingrained tradition of women’s subservient roles in her culture. She shows us the cost of the sacrifice she will have to make to claim her freedom.

“The Lunchbox” is, even at this early point, one of the year’s best. It’s a reminder of film’s power to reflect the shared humanity of people of every part of the world.

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