The Lunchbox (2013) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic material and smoking
Running Time: 104 min.
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Lillete Dubey, Nakul Vaid, Bharati Achrekar
Director: Ritesh Batra
Screenplay: Ritesh Batra
Review published April 5, 2014
The Lunchbox starts with a young housewife in Mumbai named Ila (Kaur, One Night with the King) preparing lunch for her self-absorbed husband that is delivered through a courier service (known as 'dabbawala', in India) that promises to get the food to the proper destination, i.e. the husband's (Vaid, Chakde! India) place of employment, by lunch time. On this day, however, Ila's dabba (a cylindrical aluminum tiffin lunch box) ends up on the desk of the wrong person, a soon-to-be-retiring, widower claims adjuster named Saajan Fernandes (Khan, Life of Pi), who uses the delivery service to get food from a restaurant near his home.
After Ila realizes the mistake, the next day, the same thing happens again, but this time the lunch comes with a note from Ila regarding the mix-up, and Saajan replies back. Soon, the two are writing back and forth through letters sent via the lunchbox delivery each day, finding comfort in one another's words that get them through the loneliness of their humdrum lives.
The letters-back-and-forth premise has been a staple of romances for some time, most notably in films like The Lake House (and shades of Sleepless in Seattle), and spans many cultures. This drama with comedic and subtle romantic elements is India's variant on the theme, and one of the better ones to use the device. The rationale for the lunchbox delivery service is a bit strange, as foul-ups seem bound to occur (though the service claims Harvard has studied their system and found that they never make mistakes).
I suppose the weakest element of the story will naturally be the contrivance of the dabbawala continuing to make a mistake day after day, especially Ila's initial assumption after the food was mistakenly delivered one day that the mistake would continue on the next. None of the people we meet, save for Ila's husband, seem to have a computer or cell phone readily available (not even the accountant), which would have made continued correspondence far more convenient (not to mention less likely for them to lose touch), but less romantic than hand-written notes, so the issue is forced, despite one character's statement that everyone uses email and no one actually writes letters anymore.
The Lunchbox is written and directed by Ritesh Batra, his first effort. Batra gets us on the side of the main characters early, though the fact that Ila is married and much younger than Saajan (the casting of 46-year-old Khan makes him seem unlikely for an early retirement from a company he has worked with for 35 years, not to mention not really that much older than 31-year-old actress Kaur) makes their potential coupling seem like a hurdle too high to surpass, though elements eventually come into play that lowers the height quite a bit. We're not sure they can each find happiness, but we hope for the best. Although it is difficult to get over the initial contrivance of the way they "meet", as we come to learn more about the protagonists, the more invested we become in how it will all play out.
Batra's film is handsomely shot, with solid lead performances from the two main actors. There's a lot of delicious food on display, so if you love Indian cuisine, it's advisable not to screen the film hungry. It does feel a bit on the long side for the kind of slight premise that it is, especially in a few side developments that are explored more than necessary to tie them in with the main theme of overcoming one's ruts in life to have a chance at recapturing happiness.
©2014 Vince Leo