The Lunchbox: Epistolary Romance in Modern India

The Lunchbox

Opens Fri., March 28 at Harvard Exit. Rated PG. 104 minutes.

The epistolary novel of the 18th century has occasionally been updated to the age of Twitter and e-mail (Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette makes use of such correspondence), but this compact Indian drama dares a return to actual handwritten notes to advance its plot. In teeming Mumbai, a network of Dabbawallahs delivers hot lunches to desk-bound bureaucrats like Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a lonely widower nearing retirement. His food is commercially cooked, while luckier office workers have wives back home who employ the same Dabbawallah delivery service. Somehow the lunches get switched, regularly, between Saajan and neglected housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur). What’s worse, her distracted and possibly adulterous husband can’t even taste the difference! She’s hurt and offended, while Saajan is delighted with his misdirected meals. The Lunchbox is the simple story of their accidental friendship.

Nowhere does writer/director Ritesh Batra seriously suggest his two leads will ever hook up. (Kisses would cause a scandal in Bollywood.) Nor even does a chaste, Brief Encounter–style meeting of the souls seem likely. The Lunchbox merely describes an increasingly hectic, impersonal city, where two kindred spirits crave human connection. Ila’s husband may be a slave to his smartphone, but she and her pen pal are more traditional and sentimental—perhaps more Indian for Batra. (Sajaan works in a government ministry, surrounded by paper, without a computer in sight.)

Khan, of Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi, gives a master class in tamped-down emotion. Saajan initially refuses to train his eager young replacement (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), but once Ila pries open his heart (via his stomach), he begins to soften. If this civil servant is past the age for romance, maybe friendship is still possible. And more, this quietly rewarding movie argues, maybe it’s possible to give succor to a stranger with a little bit of ink or a little bit of roti.

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