In an age when instant messaging, email, and various social media have made communication easier and quicker, debutant writer-director Ritesh Batra relies on scribbled notes tucked in tiffin boxes to deliver a charming, old-fashioned love story in The Lunchbox. There’s a simple line in this sumptuous film that captures its essence beautifully: “Sometimes even the wrong train can take you to the right destination.” It’s a line that might help interpret the film’s open ending, but one that also nicely sums up its unique premise.
Neglected housewife and caring mother Ila (Nimrat Kaur), determined to spice up her loveless marriage, heeds the advice of a well-meaning Aunty in the flat upstairs (a terrific Bharati Achrekar, heard but never seen) and whips up a killer meal for her husband. But as luck would have it, a rare error in Mumbai’s famously efficient dabbawala service results in the tiffin landing up at the desk of a grumpy accountant on the verge of retirement, a widower named Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan). On realizing that her lovingly prepared meal was eaten by someone else, Ila encloses a note in the steel lunchbox the following day. Saajan writes back and this pair of strangers begins a tentative friendship through routinely exchanged letters, sharing with each other their dreams, their memories of loved ones snatched away, and their empty lives.
As much a love letter to Mumbai as it is a searing portrait of loneliness, The Lunchbox unfolds against the bustle of this teeming city. Batra and his cinematographer give us skillfully composed sequences of a dabba’s long journey from the kitchen to the desk of its intended recipient. We travel with our characters in local trains, buses and taxis; we go into Ila’s middle-class cheek-to-jowl apartment block to Saajan’s modest Bandra cottage and the dull government office he has worked 35 years at. It’s a metro bursting at its seams, and yet our protagonists are lost souls here.
The third wheel in this story is Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character Shaikh, a younger officer poised to take over from Saajan. Cheery, optimistic and always making the most of an opportunity, Shaikh forges a bond with the taciturn Saajan despite the dour older man’s initial reluctance. You see flashes of Mumbai in Shaikh’s personality – it is a city that invites you to embrace it with all its flaws. Nawazuddin is wholly endearing and funny in the role; we’re unaccustomed to seeing the actor in this light and it’s a sheer delight.
Still, it is the two central actors that grab hold of your attention in this story. Irrfan Khan, as the loner who loosens up when he falls in love, makes a nuanced role seem deceptively simple, yet gives Saajan emotional heft. With The Lunchbox, Irrfan adds another inspired performance to his extraordinary repertoire. The surprise ingredient here is the relatively unknown Nimrat Kaur as Ila. Playing an insecure hausfrau who gradually blossoms into her own person, the actress doesn’t take one wrong step. Spending much of the film alone, she makes Ila entirely believable, yet infuses her with an irresistible luminosity.
The unseen hero of this delicious love story is writer-director Ritesh Batra who pulls off a near perfect script that’s reflective of a city and the people that live in it. Through the relationships his characters share, Batra displays a great understanding of human nature, embracing its many complexities. He also masterfully blends food into this narrative, turning it into such a sensory experience that you want to rush out of the cinema and tuck into a lovely meal. The single false note in this bittersweet symphony is Lilette Dubey, a tad over-made up, her performance uncharacteristically melodramatic for this subtle film.
I’m going with five out of five for The Lunchbox. The greatest love stories are the ones that make you root for the protagonists to come together, despite their destinies. This film illustrates how love transforms the unlikeliest of people; it breaks down Saajan’s walls and gives Ila the courage to fly. Treat yourself to The Lunchbox – it’ll leave you with a craving to seek your own little happiness. The best film I’ve seen in a long time.