It is certainly a joy when yet another film being hailed as the true flag of Hindi language independent cinema actually delivers in all departments, particularly in terms of performances and script. After having watched a couple of Hindi indie films in the past few years with less-than-enthusiastic reviews to post, I am glad to say Ritesh Batra has finally nailed it. The Lunchbox has India co-producing along with France, Germany and the U.S., giving it all its chances abroad and among Indian audiences looking for honest niche cinema of great quality.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a dedicated housewife who unsuccessfully tries to improve her troubled relationship with her husband (Nakul Vaid) through the food she packs in his tiffin every day. As luck would have it, one day the impossible happens. The clockwork dabba wala system in Bombay (the famous lunch box service that delivers homemade food to office workers throughout the city) makes a mistake and fails to deliver her culinary concoctions to her husband’s office, delighting a retiring widower accountant, Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan) instead. Saajan does due honor to Ila’s food by appreciating its scent and then every single bite. When Ila realizes that her husband did not receive her loving cuisine and did not even notice, she sends a thank you note enclosed in a chapatti the next day to the stranger who returned an empty lunch box, unaware that she – and the inadvertent dabba wala that delivers her food and her note – will spark an increasingly intimate correspondence with an equally lonely stranger, ultimately changing both their lives. The question of whether one should stop aiming for a fulfilled life once we believe age has caught up with us is central to the story.
All this sounds like a sweet plot sprinkled with wistful considerations. The loneliness that distils from the screen is however magnificently well countered by an extraordinarily vivacious and charming performance by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, playing Aslam Shaikh: a resilient “won’t take no for an answer” understudy who insists to be trained by an ageing Saajan Fernandez. While Saajan is reluctant to break away from his loneliness by engaging with a new recruit who represents his upcoming retirement, Shaikh eventually brings the veteran’s imaginary walls down, and both become friends.
It would be inadequate to simply describe The Lunchbox as a love story with a culinary backdrop. The film is less about food and romance between two strangers than about dreams, self-perceptions, self-limitations and seeking a true connection with other souls despite the hardships of life or the demands of a teeming metropolis.
Which brings me to comment on and strongly applaud what I consider to be the best portrayal of a Bombay/Mumbai that rings truer than true in a recent film. Even secondary characters, such as the cricket playing children in Saajan’s neighborhood, or invisible characters, such as the advice-giving “Aunty” (Bharati Achrekar), sound and feel profoundly Mumbaikar. Music has made itself discreet in the film in order to give Bombay the limelight in each urban scene through the ambient sound of the city’s bustling noise, the sound of monsoon rain or its singing walas or street children. The city’s crowded public transportation and traffic jams, the struggle or loneliness of its inhabitants, but also its undeniable magic, pepper the screen. Only Bombay magic is capable of making two people in love listen to kindred songs at the same time in different parts of the city without realizing it... What is amazing in this feat is that Bombay will bewitch both foreign and Indian viewers in different ways that will be equally effective. While foreign viewers will appreciate a no-frills depiction of the City that Never Sleeps, Mumbaikars might identify with the film’s characters and will recognize local and cultural references (oh, those Hindi film songs!) that will keep them engaged.
Editing and cinematography are well carried out throughout the film but my sincere admiration goes to the director/screenplay writer and cast for their impeccable work. Nimrat Kaur is perfect in every single frame as the housewife who quietly seeks to find respite from her humdrum existence. It was equally high time to see Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan together. They make a mind blowing pair and feed each other's talent and perfect comic timing. Yes sir, generous dollops of high quality performances are one of the powerful reasons why The Lunchbox is a definite must-watch. The other main reason is that it is a rare gem that might quietly take you to those places in the heart that usually lay unexplored. I therefore strongly recommend savoring this rich delicacy for the soul.
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Director: Ritesh Batra
Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra
Producers: Guneet Monga, Anurag Kashyap, Arun Rangachari
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Nakul Vaid, Lillete Dubey, Bharati Achrekar
Director of photography: Michael Simmonds
Editor: John Lyons
Music: Max Richter