In Mumbai, India, there’s a system of delivering lunches that are picked up from home kitchens and restaurants then delivered to workers in their offices (right to their desk) via bikes, trains, and pushcarts with errors only being the remotest of possibilities. After the lunch breaks are over, the tiffins (lunch boxes) are picked up, then transported back to the exact point of origin. Every day, nearly 175,000 such lunch boxes are picked up, delivered, and returned. The rate of error for lunches either being lost or delivered incorrectly, is so low that once in a million deliveries applies. This system has been in use since the latter part of the 19th century.
This film is about one such lunchbox and it is no surprise that film is entitled The Lunch Box. This lovely film was written and directed by Ritesh Batra in his first ever work on a feature film and has won awards at film festivals from Reykjavik to Sao Paulo, from such diverse places like Oslo, London, Ghent, and from Tribeca to Telluride to Dubai. Just a few days ago, The Lunch Box opened at Sarasota’s indie/art/foreign theater, the Burns Court Cinema.
Batra is only 35 years old and studied film in New York. But his touch is fine. He knows his craft, and the film flows by in a brief 104 minutes. This is an Indian film that has made the box offices light up all over the world.
Nosheen Iqbal, writing for The Guardian newspaper in the UK has noted that the film reflects India’s new taste for realism. It’s not really new, as years back, in the 60’s and 70’s, this style of film making was called India’s Parallel Cinema. In that era, those practitioners made films with serious content, naturalism, and an eye on realism rather than commercialism. So the Parallel Cinema has been around for a while.
Here’s the story of The Lunch Box, condensed of course.
Nimrat Kaur plays the housewife Ila. Her husband commutes to work each day from a Mumbai suburb, and Ila gets her young daughter off to school in the morning. She loves her husband, and tries hard to please him. But he doesn’t notice or care. So Ila enlists the help of a neighbor upstairs, called Auntie, whom we hear, but never see. An extra special lunch is prepared. The door bell rings, and there’s the dabbawallah to pick up the lunch. She watches as he loads the lunch box on to his bike, and rides off the train station where the lunches are organized and sorted before being sent to the city for delivery.
Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire) plays Saajan Fernandes. He is an older man, a widower who is approaching his retirement from his job as an accountant in the Claims Department of a large insurance company. He too receives his lunches on a regular basis via the same system, only his lunches are prepared by a restaurant.
On this particular day something is different.
A) Fernandes notices immediately the improvement in the food, and the variety of the separate dishes that he has received. He senses that this lunch is far different than his usual.
B) Ila notices two things when the lunch box is returned to her. All the food has been consumed, and the lunch box is sparkling clean. This is not the way the lunch box is usually returned to her. So she decides to ask her husband about it.
Only she didn’t prepare cauliflower that day —
Auntie, the lunch box went to someone else.
The next day, she prepares another lunch, and this time she writes a short note thanking this unknown recipient of her cooking for finishing all the food. Fernandes realizing that he must reply, sends back the lunch box with his own short note.
And there’s your set up. The food continues to be prepared by Ila, with love and attention and care, and Fernandes continues to be impressed. The notes become the standard high point of the day while going from polite and courteous to deeper, friendlier, and more personal and obviously warmer.
While this is not an Indian version of Sleepless in Seattle, you know, people communicating across a distance, without having met, it clearly has similar tropes. But the beauty of the film is in the small and nuanced performances of the actors.
Irrfan Khan has a stillness to him. He’s precise and careful. Watch how he carefully removes his glasses and always puts them in a small case. Watch how Ila’s notes to him are always placed into the pocket on the left side of his shirt. And most importantly, watch for the changes, however slight, yet still visible in his disposition, his posture, and how he deals with his job.
Khan is simply amazing in this role. This is not a theatrical, chew up the scenery type of performance. It is just so abundant in its naturalism, and truthful activity. We watch him and we think this is not an actor – rather this is a man on the threshold of his retirement. He may be an older dog, but the new food has changed him.
Back in the burbs, Ila appreciates the lively notes and the appreciation she receives from Khan’s Fernandes. She will uncover the real reason for her husband’s indifference, only it happens in a non-verbal way. While Khan’s Fernandes movements are small, well-considered, and repeated again and again. Kaur’s Ila is all about emotion. her facial expressions and her eyes tell all.
The other thing about this film is that the film does not play out the way you might think. There are hurdles to be cleared, and there’s an age difference, and of course, there are other considerations. Batra’s script considers all of this, and yet he keeps his cards close to him.
Will the reserved and still Fernandes and the emotive and full of life Ila meet? Will they fall in love?
Simply, I won’t tell you, my review for this tasty dish of a film is only like a recipe found in a cookbook. You still have to try it out for yourself. And to help you along, here’s the trailer with English subtitles.
I’m rating this film as a delicious four-point five out of five. It comes with my high recommendation. Even if films from India are not your usual fare, like the line from the film says – Sometimes the wrong train can get you to the right station. Enjoy.