Life has a way of humbly breaking us down, and sometimes, normal pursuits aren't enough to rouse us — so thank goodness for the unexpected things that are. In the case of writer/director Ritesh Batra's acclaimed feature film debut, The Lunchbox, it's the kindness of strangers after an unlikely mistake that brings the two protagonists together.
In Mumbai, Saajan (Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi) is a lonely widower who's a month away from retirement. He has no friends, and can't stand the new guy (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) he's been asked to train to replace him.
He receives lunch from the Dabbawalas, the city's lunchbox delivery service that is reputedly always on time and never makes mistakes. Today, however, to Saajan's good fortune the Dabbawalas have indeed made a mistake.
Instead of getting the service's typically bland lunch, he receives a meal sent by a forlorn housewife named Ila (Nimrat Kaur) that's meant for her emotionally distant husband (Nakul Vaid). Saajan enjoys the meal, but sends a note back saying it's too salty. Ila writes back, and soon enough they both realize the mistake that's been made but do not complain. Instead, they take solace in writing openly and honestly to a stranger, bring comfort to one another, and enjoy feeling what grows into a genuine emotional communication they both desperately need.
The long-distance symbiotic emotional bond is nothing new for movies — it was previously seen in 1998's You've Got Mail and 2006's The Lake House, among others — but The Lunchbox comes at a time in which technology has changed the way people communicate, and not necessarily for the better. It's fascinating to see a story void of Facebook, Twitter and texts that still carries a poignant message about the importance of personal communication. It's a good movie in its own right — as evidenced by the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award it earned at Cannes last year — but it also serves as a reminder of how the world communicated prior to the technological takeover.
The film was shot on location in Mumbai, which becomes a character in itself. In fact, Batra goes to great pains to show the hardships of city life, including overcrowded trains, lack of privacy in homes, and poverty. It is into this world that these characters venture every day, which doesn't provide much reason for optimism and makes the personal story that much more affecting.
Although this is a Bollywood film, it does not feature musical sequences, or even an original song. Nor should it — there's no need for a "look at me" moment that would directly contrast with the quiet, intimate story being told. This isn't a romance, but as the connection between Saajan and Ila grows, we root for them to embrace the comfort the other offers and use it to find happiness.
The Lunchbox is the type of calm, thoughtful drama that's emboldened by a simplicity not often found in modern movies. It's also sweet and heartwarming in all the right ways.
The striking colors and textures are reminiscent of Southern Colorado and New Mexico. Lovely work.