THE LUNCHBOX is a graceful, delicate film directed by Ritesh Batra about two lonely people who get to know each other the old-fashioned way – through delectable, beautifully prepared meals, and the passing of folded notes tucked away discreetly in a lunchbox. Mumbai with its mesmerizing lunch delivery system, reminded me of an assembly-line of various conveyances racing to different locations - scooter, bicycle, and foot, incredibly well-organized and always efficient – delivered on time and most importantly to the proper destination. Except in this case a mixup occurs. And that is the kernel of this tale of emotional transformation.
Nimrat Kaur portrays Ila, an underestimated, disregarded housewife who believes that she can rekindle the magic of her relationship with hubby through the art of culinary skill. She is being coached and advised on food preparation and love relationships by a neighbor called Auntie who she communicates with by screaming out the window - a bit of a heavy-handed comic distraction, but also a narrative device to fill in historical and familial stories.
We see the coldness of Ila’s domestic situation when her husband comes home from work, barely noticing his wife and their young child. The only prospect of contact she has with him is the daily lunchbox meals that get delivered to his place of work. Ila’s fantasy that the metal canisters of various dishes, carefully and tenderly prepared, can bridge a gulf of indifference is both poignant and heartrending.
The amazingly expressive actor, Irrfan Khan plays Saajan Fernandes, a widowed bureaucrat in a busy office, weeks from retiring; a man who does his job well, keeps to himself, seemingly standoffish, rarely interacting with any colleagues at work. His solitude and desolation are evident when he comes home from work, smoking on the balcony wistfully watching another family across the way responding to his intense gaze by drawing the curtains to shield the view.
Saajan is the recipient of the mis-delivered lunchbox, and as the film progresses, we witness his re-emergence into society and humanity, the initial reawakening through the savory reception of Ila’s lovingly cooked meals. She quickly realizes that her husband did not receive her special “gift”, but the anonymous person who licked up every last bit of her cuisine appreciated her artistry, so she continues to send out the lunchbox, but includes scraps of paper with bits and pieces of her life slowly opening up to a sympathetic and sensitive association - one that will subtly and softly burnish both their lives.
Once Saajan opens the door to his inner secret self, even if ever so carefully, another character appears – a young man, charmingly portrayed by Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Shaikh, an ambitious apprentice in the office who is being trained by Saajan to be his future replacement. Their complicated relationship is both intensely heartrending, and eloquent in the way it conveys Sajaan’s growing awareness of the inequity of class distinctions in India.
THE LUNCHBOX is more than light comedy. It is a gentle tale of lives inadvertently bumping into each other and careening off in distinctive directions, influencing one another by encounters that are humble and often unassuming, but reverberate, echoing permanently.