Movie Review: The Lunchbox (2013)



by Alan F. Zundel

When strangers cross paths, the result can be life changing. This observation is at the heart of the majority of dramas, particularly love stories. It reflects the dual truth that we tend to be absorbed in our daily routines and perspectives on life, but that these routines and perspectives are constantly vulnerable to disruption by the millions of others whose lives intersect ours.

Writer-director Ritesh Batra gives a new twist to this ancient theme in the touching and amusing film, “The Lunchbox.” A character study that relies on small details rather than high drama, it focuses on neglected housewife Ila and widowed accountant Saajan, who interact via notes passed in a lunchbox mistakenly delivered.

Ila, a young mother living with her husband and school-age daughter in a cramped apartment in Mumbai, is experimenting with new recipes provided by an upstairs neighbor in hope of regaining her husband’s attention and affection. She delivers her creations to her husband at work via Mumbai’s unique bicycle and trolley lunchbox delivery system.

One day, however, the system fails and her lunch is delivered to Saajan by mistake. A private and aloof man nearing retirement, Saajan at first thinks the delivery is from a local restaurant that he contracts with. He finds the meal surprisingly delicious and sends the empty box (actually a set of interlocking metal pots) back with a brief note saying that the meal was “too salty.”

Ila receives the note and realizes the mistake. Mildly offended that a stranger ate her husband’s meal and critiqued it, she sends another meal with extra hot spice and a note saying she is glad he enjoyed the previous meal. Saajan has to buy a banana to cool off his mouth after eating the new meal, but sends back another note. This begins a continued delivery of lunches and exchange of notes between them, as they are both lonely and begin to enjoy the correspondence. Gradually they both change through the interactions, Saajan opening up and softening and Ila gaining the courage to consider leaving her husband, who she finds has been having an affair.

As a part-time mental health counselor I make use of the fact that revealing your thoughts and feelings to a stranger can sometimes be easier than to someone known, but I also have to guard against the artificial sense of intimacy that ensues. The dramatic tension in “The Lunchbox” comes from how the exchange of notes leads to romantic feelings and the question of what will happen when these two very different characters finally arrange to meet face-to-face. Despite the contrived nature of the plot gimmick, the denouement is realistic and not the typical Hollywood (or Bollywood) fantasy.

Without direct interactions between the two principal characters, Batra must find other means of showing the changes taking place in each of them. Wisely he relies on metaphor and his actors’ abilities to convey inner states via subtle performances rather than larding up the script with self-revealing speeches. When Saajan looks up at a ceiling fan in his office, his expression says it all: someday my turning will also stop.

Irrfan Khan is excellent as Saajan, helping the audience sympathize with a man who is at first hard to like because he has closed himself off from love. He is ably supported by Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the role of Shaikh, a friendly young man without a family who is assigned to be trained by Saajan as a replacement. Ila is at the opposite pole from Saajan, her plight being sympathetic to the point of pity, but Nimrat Kaur avoids that trap by conveying the strength gathering behind Ila’s intermittent hopefulness of improving her life.

Movies are, in a way, like that meal that goes out to a stranger and has the potential to change his or her life. The creators of the movie labor in the hope it will be enjoyed and send it out with all the others, not knowing who it will reach.

We, the recipients, find it to our taste or we do not. Either way, we have opened ourselves up to having our routines and perspectives disrupted and perhaps changing in the process. Isn’t that what we all secretly hope for when we go to a movie, a life-altering experience?

“The Lunchbox” may not be a life-altering experience, but it is a lovingly prepared meal. If a quiet comedy-drama is to your taste, and you are willing to take your time and savor this one, you will not be sorry.

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