Irrfan Khan in “The Lunchbox”
By Joan Ellis
“The Lunchbox” is that rare and special pleasure: A movie that invites us to sit back and let it wash gently over us.
Writer/director Ritesh Batra has written a beautiful short story on film, a touching picture of the vulnerability of his characters.
Batra opens his story with a mother, who delivers life lessons to her young daughter, as she readies her for school. Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a classically beautiful woman living in a dead marriage with Rajeev (Nakul Vaid), returns to her kitchen to prepare Rajeev’s lunchbox while talking out the window to Auntie (Bharati Achrekar) who lives in the upstairs flat. Auntie sends down advice and ingredients in a basket lowered by rope. The advice? Delicious hot lunches will invigorate the marriage; here are the ingredients.
A word about that. We are in Mumbai and the city is famous for its lunchbox delivery system of daily hot meals, prepared by wives or restaurants for working men. As we follow Ila’s lunchbox, we watch a relay race of deliverymen who hand it off – along with dozens of other lunchboxes – to a succession of messengers who never make a mistake – until today.
It has taken me two full paragraphs to do what director Batra does in his fast flash opening scenes; he introduces us to his major players, gives us the crush of Mumbai’s commuter culture in the pouring rain and shows us the mechanics of the flawless lunchbox system. On this day, Ila’s perfect hot lunch lands not on the desk of her husband but in front of Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) who eats it, cleans the stacked cups, and encloses a polite note to Ila explaining the mistake.
And so we have met Saajan, a glum, silent widower; Ila, a depressed, lonely wife; Auntie, who tends to a husband who has been in a coma for 15 years; Ila’s mother, whose husband is dying; and finally and wonderfully, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddigui), the lonely young man with no family who is about to replace Saajan when he retires after 35 years at the same desk in the claims department.
Every one of them is alone, and “The Lunchbox” touches lightly on each while concentrating on the exchange of daily notes between Ila and Saajan as they warm to possibility.
Director Batra resists easy solutions, giving us instead a gentle unfolding that is entirely consistent with his characters. Irrfan Khan never abandons subtlety as he moves from Saajan’s depression to emotional risk. Nimrat Kaur, more open about Ila’s sadness, gives all of it to us through delicate expression. Overstatement would have ruined the tone, and there is none.
The unspoken question here: What might these people be willing to do to change their aloneness? At one point, Saajan says, “I think we forget things if we have no one to tell them to.” That captures the feelings of everyone we have met in this low key, very lovely movie.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.