Ritesh Batra’s directorial debut, “The Lunchbox,” had originally been intended as a documentary about the dabbawalla, a lunch delivery service in Mumbai known for getting home-cooked meals from kitchens to office desks with statistically remarkable accuracy. Somewhere along the way, Batra decided instead on incorporating a traditional narrative in more ways than one.
In his retooled fable, the dabbawalla system results in a rare mix-up. Housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is disappointed when her distant husband comes home one afternoon with little to mention of her latest meal; meanwhile, widower Saajan (Irrfan Khan) is puzzled by the sudden improvement on part of his usual restaurant. Ila decides to include a note with her next meal, kicking off a penpal relationship with this stranger wherein the dish sometimes says more than the words do. Batra has managed to arrange a meet-cute without having his two leads actually meet, and his film is simple, pleasant and predictable, save for the trust ultimately extended in its final moments that the audience can draw its own conclusions.
Until then, the writer-director emphasizes the value of handmade individuality in an overwhelmingly homogenized society, lamenting the urban fervor that seems to drive some strangers to suicide. Much as in life, food serves as a tidy substitute for love, with Ida and Saajan longing for one another from afar, a chaste romance worthy of the yellowed pages that make up long-creased paperbacks. Naturally, each is given their own local foil off whom to bounce their newfound emotions: after 35 years of solitary accounting duties, Saajan is tasked with training an earnest protégé (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and gradually warms to him, while Ila solicits advice from her unseen aunt (Bharati Achrekar) who shouts down from the floor above. The aunt’s ornery observations are amusing, as are Saajan’s initially curt replies, although the humor subsides in the face of an ever mounting attraction, which both Khan and Kaur convey in convincingly understated ways whenever their respective narration isn’t explicitly addressing matters of age, loss and neglect.
However tentative it may seem to the characters, their relationship should reveal itself to be a cozily familiar construct for most viewers. The setting and subtitles make “The Lunchbox” seem exotic on the outside, but the story therein is patently safe, and the added foodie factor only solidifies its sleeper potential in the States. Hell, were dabbawalla to exist in our own culture, this project would have likely reunited Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan and then gone on exactly one scene longer than this does. None of that nonsense changes the fact that this long-distance love story is comfort food in any language, perfectly agreeable and unlikely to surprise.
SCORE: 6.8 / 10
“The Lunchbox” was screened for our critic at the Telluride Film Festival, and then screened at TIFF in advance of its upcoming theatrical release from Sony Pictures Classics.