Niall Anderson takes delivery of foodie Indian romcom The Lunchbox
Made in India but with funding from everywhere from Germany to the US, Ritesh Batra’s warm romance The Lunchbox can almost be read as a parable of globalisation. Mumbai may be a gigantic business centre, but millions of meals per day are still delivered to offices by bicycle or by hand. Hindi may be the official language but the younger characters are distinguished by their fluency in English. Conversely, while smartphones are everywhere, the engine of the plot is handwritten notes passed back and forth in the lunchbox of the title.
If this last detail makes the film sound nostalgic and maybe even a little reactionary, there’s enough solid unsentimental detail in the margins of the script to push that impression back. If it makes the film sound worthy, then at least it’s also clear-eyed about how metropolitan life enhances as well as hinders individuality. If it makes The Lunchbox sound cute, well, yes – guilty as charged.
Widowed claims adjustor Saajan (Irrfan Khan) is introduced in the office to a new hire, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and told to train him in. Saajan is heartstricken and friendless and doesn’t initially seem to realise that he is being asked to train his own replacement. So it’s just as well that his idea of training is as brusque and uncommitted as everything else he does around the place.
One day in the office, Saajan receives, as if by magic, a lunchbox of food. He scoffs it. He scoffs several more lunchboxes over the following days. But in one lunchbox he receives a note along with his food. Housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) has realised the lunches she has been preparing for her husband have been misdelivered by the city dabawallahs. She knows this because she was making these meals especially to get her husband to pay attention to her. Saajan writes a reply chiding her food as too salty, but Ila has seen every lunchbox come back empty, so she knows there’s more to his reply than mere grumpiness. She persists in sending food and notes to Saajan, and gradually Sajaan’s guard comes down. Love – if not quite romance – is in the air.
The story flips between Saajan and Ila’s perspective. As Saajan becomes happier and more engaged with life and with work, Ila only becomes more downtrodden – living for the moments when she receives Saajan’s replies. The predictable jeopardies are all in place. Will Ila’s husband find out about her “affair”? Will she flee her failing marriage? Will Saajan keep his job against his upstart apprentice? Will Ila and Saajan finally meet?
The plotting, it must be said, comes from the Line Of Least Resistance™ school. Just when a big bout of jeopardy comes up, a smaller dose of jeopardy is administered to inoculate against the worst symptoms. Where The Lunchbox really succeeds is in playing with a straight bat no matter how melodramatic the set-up. Khan, Kaur and Siddiqui act even the broadest scenes with a dignity their characters seem to demand: they find laughs and poignancy in things that aren’t really in the script. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds brings to the public spaces and offices of Mumbai the same sort of vivid, unfussy clarity that he did in Man Push Cart and Chop Shop.
The Lunchbox is an international film on a very narrow frame. It reminds you – perhaps a little calculatedly – that receiving love notes on paper is exactly as socially alienated a process as receiving a text, or scoping someone’s online dating profile; which is to say not very alienated at all. Its concentration on the seductive power of food makes it feel very Indian at times, but in other places you may find yourself thinking of Brief Encounter or even – towards the end – Crocodile Dundee. But finally it’s very much its own thing: a warm and affectionate film of hard times endured and overcome.