Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Genre: Drama/ Romance/ Comedy/ World Cinema
Mumbai housewife Ila (Kaur) makes lunch for her husband everyday that is delivered to his workplace by ‘dabbawalas’, the famous lunch delivering service in Mumbai. She struggles to get any affection from him and cooks the most delicious dishes she can, with the advice from her auntie upstairs, to get that affection back. When the metal lunch container returns empty, Ila believes she has made her husband happy, but in fact it was sent by mistake to Saajan (Khan) a lonely and widowed office worker who is on the verge of retirement. The two begin to exchange notes that start off as basic cooking tips and develop into personal notes as they try to advise one another on getting satisfaction and happiness from their lives. As they get closer and reveal more about one another, they both discover that may find happiness where they least expected it.
As outrageously schmaltzy as that synopsis may sound, Ritesh Batra’s film manages to use the admittedly simple premise and slightly contrived narrative to deliver (no pun intended) a film of surprising substance. The narrative gives genuine exploration of the simple but very relatable emotional subjects of companionship, friendship and mortality but at the same time still manages to be culturally specific. It is certainly not as light, fluffy and crowd pleasing as the very colourful posters with the characters smiling would suggest; Batra’s film is not afraid to remain grounded in reality in terms of certain narrative developments, and is in my view all the better and more moving a film for that.
In the two leading roles Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur are both charming and sympathetic screen presences, their own personal dilemmas captured perfectly in the longing look in their eyes; what they want is something so essentially simple, but yet becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. As we learn more about each character through them reading each other’s letters we do genuinely want them to find happiness in this frantic and quite lonely world, and it is for me this genuine compassion we start to feel for the two characters that makes The Lunchbox such a compelling and very watchable drama.
Though marketed as comedy for obvious reasons, I would argue that The Lunchbox is first and foremost a drama. However there are laughs to be had from mainly our protagonist’s interaction with supporting characters; Ila’s constant cooking tips shouted down from the flat upstairs by her auntie are a hoot and Saajan’s initial relationship with his enthusiastic rookie co-worker Shaikh (Siddiqui) brings about plenty of laughs from his exchanges with cynical Saajan. However Shaikh has his own story and the subplot involving his character and another subplot involving Ila’s parents actually enhance the arc of the two protagonists and our emotional engagement with the story, instead of detracting from it which could have easily been the risk.
Visually the film is also extremely well put together, the cinematography perhaps more muted than expected, but constant shots of the crowded hustle and bustle of Mumbai only serves to enhance the themes the narrative explores. Though it may not live long in the memory, and admittedly the contrivances the narrative relies on so heavily perhaps add the occasional touch of unbelievable which do threaten to take you out of the moment. However, Batra makes sure to keep enough of an element of reality from the start to the film’s very satisfying and appropriate ending to make The Lunchbox an engaging and very watchable drama.
Wonderfully acted and delicately observed; despite its slightly contrived plot, The Lunchbox has enough genuine heart and eye for reality when dealing with very universal themes to make for a charming and satisfying drama.