Out of all the international film industries that are thriving these days, Indian cinema stands out among the rest, for better or for worse. Western audiences are increasingly finding an interest with films out of India with many of them receiving wide international releases. In 2013, Bollywood actioner Dhoom 3 managed to pop in the top 10 domestic box office during its opening weekend and various other productions have managed to break records in their North American and European theatrical runs. Though I have mixed feelings about films like Dhoom 3 being the first Indian film experienced by people not familiar (that would be the equivalent of showing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to someone who hasn’t seen a Hollywood film before), but at the same time it is a good way to ease people into the more artistic, adult-oriented and experimental Indian films that are being released (and when I say experimental, I mean experimental by Indian standards). This brings us to The Lunchbox.
To put things into context, I’ll need to explain something real quick. In India, mostly in large metropolitan areas (Mumbai in this film’s case), there are groups of people called “dubbawala.” They work in a delivery network system in which they collect tiffin carriers (cylindrical steel/aluminum lunchboxes with multiple compartments) from residential areas early in the morning and deliver it to the designated workplace during early noon and then deliver it back home late afternoon. This is because Indian culture puts a lot of emphasis on home-cooked food, and eating out is reserved for really special occasions. It’s an industry that’s well over 100 years old and is still growing, and they are well known for their tight and efficient timing and being very, very rare in making a mistake in their delivery.
So, The Lunchbox is about a mistaken delivery. To clarify, we follow two people. There is Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young mother who stays at home while her young daughter is at school and her husband is at work. There is a growing disconnect between Ila and her husband. The second person is Saajan Fernandes. He is an older man, an accountant, who lives alone after the death of his wife, as he continues on life with no real drive or motivation. Both are lonely in their own way. One day when Ila is sending her husband lunch, there is a mix-up and Saajan ends up receiving it. She finds out when the lunchbox is returned and it is empty, but her husband was complimenting a dish she did not make. So, Ila decides to send a thank-you note along with the food the next day, Saajan sees it and replies, and an interesting relationship grows from there.
In terms of plot, the film is about as small and simplistic ad you can get, but with many factors working in the film’s favor, along with dealing with several interesting themes, the film manages to work on many levels. One of the elements is the writing and directing from Ritesh Batra, who makes his rather impressive feature length debut. He manages to carefully craft very realistic characters experiencing what normal people experience every day. The themes of love, marriage, connections and living life to the fullest are handled with grace and are never overblown or overdramatic. His direction, along with Michael Simmonds excellent cinematography beautifully captures life in Mumbai as well as the emotions that the characters are feeling.
Given the minimalist set-up, the actors are given the chance to really showcase their talent, and thankfully they do not disappoint. In fact the acting is phenomenal across the board. Irrfan Khan is always reliable and he performs his role with great subtlety, tragedy and humanity. Saajan’s co-worker, Shaikh, a character who could have easily come off as grinding and annoying, but is portrayed with an endearing quality which is performed excellently by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Bharati Achrekar plays Ila’s neighbor (she’s just referred to as “Auntie”) who lives a floor above her, and though we never actually see her, their communication by way of yelling through the window is a delight to watch. The stand out performance however is by far Nimrat Kaur as Ila. This seems to be her first major role and she knocks it out of the park. You can feel the sadness and frustration from just the look on her face, and she never goes over-the-top at any point. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of her in future films because of this role.
There really isn’t anything that I could think of to fault the film for. The only real criticism I have is that at one point, we see Ila smell her husband’s clothes (implying that she smells perfume) and we hear her voice over (when Saajan is reading her letter) saying that she thinks her husband is cheating on her. This plot point isn’t really resolved and it feels like it may have been done on purpose to show how defeated Ila feels, but it just ends up feeling like Ritesh Batra just forgot about it. Other than that, there really isn’t anything that I feel is worth criticizing.
The Lunchbox is an absolute gem of a film. It’s small in scale, but grand in its ambition to explore the depths of love and relationships. The slice-of-life style of the film brings out believable and endearing characters that keep you invested in their story. It’s sweet and charming, but it avoids cliché and melodrama thanks to the wonderful writing/directing from Ritesh Batra and two brilliant lead performances. If you ever needed proof that Indian cinema is not all song-and-dance genre blenders, then this is the film you need to check out.
Side Note: Out of all the actors working in Bollywood, I wouldn’t have guessed that it would be Irrfan Khan that would transcend the nation’s borders and transition to Hollywood productions. Nothing against him, I think he’s one of the best Indian actors working today, it’s just that he has a very subtle and understated quality in his performances (the only comparison that I could make is Martin Freeman), but I’m glad to see him getting more and more work. You may recognize him as the police inspector from Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, Dr. Curt Connors’ superior officer at OsCorp in The Amazing Spider-Man and adult Pi Patel in Life of Pi. He is also going to appear in next year’s Jurassic World, so keep an eye out, after all, he’s probably going to be Hollywood’s go-to guy for Indian characters now.