Chances are the only name you might know in the cast list is Irrfan Khan, who played the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), the grieving father in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and the older Pi in Life of Pi (2012). It’s much less likely that you will be familiar with writer-director Ritesh Batra, as this is his first feature film. But don’t let the lack of a brand name — or the fact that The Lunchbox is partly in Hindi with subtitles — keep you from seeing this slyly comic, bittersweet romance. It’s a captivating charmer of surprising depth and complexity — something you’re not likely to get from a bare reading of its improbable and frankly contrived plot. The whole premise is built on the concept of a young married woman, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), trying to reignite the spark in her marriage by creating special lunches to be delivered to her husband, Rajeev (Nakul Vaid). The lunches, however, end up being delivered to a widowed, 50-ish accountant, Saajan Fernandes (Khan), who is on the verge of early retirement.
The setup sounds like a variant on one of those Astaire-Rogers movies where Ginger thinks Fred is somebody else, but The Lunchbox moves into territory that feels more like David Jones’ 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) than a musical comedy. Plus, the film’s Mumbai setting — and the use of the city’s elaborate system of dabbawallahs who efficiently deliver lunches — give it a unique feeling. In truth, this system of picking up and delivering a bewildering array of lunches is so noted for its accuracy that it generated a Harvard University study. Of course, the possibility of a mistake is the crux of the film’s situation. It only takes the one meal for Ila to discover the mistake — Rajeev describes a completely different meal than the one she sent — and she decides to repeat the attempt. This time, however, she includes a note to the unknown recipient. She doesn’t upbraid him for eating the lunch but thanks him for briefly making her feel that she’d accomplished her aim (in reference to the completely emptied containers). Sajaan writes back, and an unlikely correspondence ensues between the lonely man and the neglected wife.
Yes, it follows something of the path you probably expect, but it does so with a deft touch and such surprising grace that any preditability is not only forgivable, it simply doesn’t matter. Plus, there’s much more to the story than its bare bones. The film not only gives us glimpses into the individual lives of its two main characters, but it includes a touching secondary story about Saajan’s relationship with his too-eager replacement trainee, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). In fact, this is so much an outgrowth of the central story, that it’s unfair to call this aspect of the film secondary. If it wasn’t for Ila’s notes and his resulting new interest in life, Saajan probably wouldn’t have thawed toward the annoying young man. Much of what follows is the result of Saajan’s growing, almost fatherly friendship with Shaikh. For that matter, Shaikh’s saying that “sometimes the wrong train takes you to the right station” is central to the film and might be viewed as the film’s message.
Search all you like, I doubt you will find a false note in The Lunchbox. Everything interconnects beautifully. It’s not just the way the film holds onto its food motif in a way that never feels forced, but everything in it is relevant to its overall story and theme. Even Ila’s mother’s (Lillete Dubey) confession about how she became “disgusted” by her husband once he became ill and had to be taken care of carries a broader implication. I don’t want to say much more about the story itself. I do, however, want to encourage you to seek out this beautifully made and acted little gem of a movie. You will not regret it, and I think I’ve just found one more 2014 release that will be on my Ten Best list. Rated PG-13 for thematic material and smoking.
Starts Friday at Fine Arts Theatre