The staple of any good rom-com is an original, clever meet-cute, and writer/director Ritesh Batra certainly has a good one for his feature debut “The Lunchbox.” The missed connection in this picture that winds up bringing two strangers into each other’s orbit is a mix-up involving the delivery of the titular lunchbox. It’s a familiar practice in India, with housewives (and restaurants) preparing hot meals in the morning, and through a rather impressive system of trains and rickshaws, they get delivered to their husbands at the office, with nary a mistake. At least until Ila’s (Nimrat Kaur) steel, segmented canister of naan and curry winds up on the desk of Saajan (Irrfan Khan). And while you might think you can predict what happens next, Batra takes this rather charming set-up and quietly unfolds a film that is by turns both funny and moving, and a potent reflection on life’s disappointments and the strength required to move past them.
For Ila, she’s stuck in a marriage that has stagnated into a familiar, dull routine, with her husband (Nakul Vaid) all but ignoring her presence. Her life, such as it is, now revolves around her young daughter, while the Auntie who lives upstairs—never seen, but heard—offers advice, recipes and spices. Hoping that the way to her husband’s heart again is through his stomach, Ila puts all her effort into his lunches, but that effort instead wakes up Saajan from his slumber of solitude. At the first taste of Ila’s food, Saajan is more than happy to eat this unintended meal, a pleasant break from the mediocrity served by his regular restaurant. But each day, a new meal arrives from Ila and Saajan’s world—which doesn’t expand far beyond the office and his private, lonely life at home—at once opens to the tantalizing potential of possibility. The pair start to exchange notes as the thermos-like lunchbox goes back and forth—at first just about the food—but soon they are sharing with each other their deepest stories and secrets that they are unable to share with anyone else.
Ila is burdened by the thought her husband is having an affair, while also worrying taking care of her parents, a job that would normally fall to the son of the family, except that he has long since passed. As for Saajan, he’s widowed, facing retirement and generally keeps to his curmudgeonly self. Even the kids on his street know he’s not likely to get any balls that fall into his yard. But it’s not just Ila who is softly forced into his tightly controlled sphere of relationships, but Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a bright-eyed, almost impossibly enthusiastic new employee who Saajan has to train before he leaves the company. And while it might seem obvious where the film and story will go next, Batra softly but confidently subverts expectation, creating a film that is rich, thoughtful and mature.
While the first and second act of the films follow a familiar rom-com template with two unlikely people falling for each other with comic relief combined with slight moments of dramatic levity, it’s when “The Lunchbox” moves into its third act that it establishes itself as something unique. Batra wisely fleshes out those supporting, comic characters, adding depth to their relationship with the leads, with Shaikh’s story in particular gaining some impressive resonance as his backstory becomes shaded in. But more crucially, “The Lunchbox” never settles on an easy resolution for Ila and Saajan, opting for a path that’s much more true to their journey, even if it doesn’t give those seeking something more conventional immediate closure.
While the tonal shift into the third act is slightly jarring, Batra is able to guide his audience down this ultimately more rewarding path thanks to his actors and his own smart filmmaking. The director gets a wonderfully subtle turn by Irrfan Khan, who wisely underplays Saajan’s slow growth. This isn’t a man necessarily going through a transformation, but a late lesson in life, and Khan plays each little change and development with small gestures and little choices that add up to a complex character. And Kaur’s work as Ila is very good as well, even as she spends much of the picture by herself, speaking to her unseen Auntie and reacting to the notes she receives in return from Saajan, still finding fresh notes each time. Meanwhile, behind the camera, Batra’s decisions, which sees him use space and parallel imagery to visually transmit how Saajan and Ila open up during the course of the story, are wise and so deftly employed you may not even notice.
By time credits roll on “The Lunchbox,” to call it at a rom-com trivializes what is a far more textured picture. Batra’s film is ultimately less about love than about the vulnerability relationships place us in emotionally, and courage required to move past pain, and experience life again after we’ve been hurt. But served with two fine lead turns, warm humor and a side of paneer, “The Lunchbox” is an easy decision at the cinematic take-out counter. [B]