'What do we live for?" is the question that pops up in The Lunchbox, a romance set in Mumbai. The film, a first feature from Ritesh Batra, aims to offer a meaningful answer: We live, ideally, for love.
I'd like to add that we also live for movies as exquisite and exciting, as exotic and inviting, as this one. If there's a soul out there who exits The Lunchbox without a smile, without a tear in the eye, I'd like to meet that person. Actually, maybe I wouldn't.
Batra's story pivots on a fascinating system that keeps India's workforce going in its most populous city: an army of more than 5,000 delivery men, known as dabbawallahs. Every morning, they pick up lunchboxes (dabbas, or tiffins) from the kitchens of Mumbai housewives and take them - by foot, bike, train, and cart - to their husbands' offices and workplaces. The system is so complex, and so efficient, that it was the subject of a Harvard University study. Only one in a million lunchboxes winds up at the wrong address.
The Lunchbox is about that one.
Ila (the excellent Nimrat Kaur) is married to a man who is wholly uninterested and disengaged. With encouragement from "Auntie," an upstairs neighbor we only hear, never see, Ila begins preparing elaborate lunches - you know the old saw, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. But by mistake, the dabba is delivered to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a sad-eyed widower, an accountant at a big firm. He is surprised by his meal, and doubly surprised when another delicious lunch shows up the next day - with a note from Ila, wondering why her husband hadn't said anything about his repast.
Saajan writes back, and so a relationship is born - the loveless woman and the man whose love has gone from his life, sharing increasingly intimate thoughts, anonymously, day after day, amazing meal after amazing meal.
The Lunchbox, then, is an epistolary love story, a celebration of food, and a query about connection, synchronicity, fate, and chance. Khan, who played the police investigator in another, very different Mumbai tale, Slumdog Millionaire, and who bristled with nervous gloom as the Indian transplanted to New York in HBO's In Treatment, gives an extraordinary performance. So much of what he does is interior, defined by small gestures - a sideways look on the train, a puff of a cigarette, the way he opens the stacked tin containers of his lunches, tilting his head, curious, enticed. Saajan is a fully formed character, pensive, melancholy, witty, amused.
Filled with whimsy and wisdom, suspense and surprise, The Lunchbox serves up an unexpected, glorious feast.
The Lunchbox **** (Out of 4 stars)
Directed by Ritesh Batra. With Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. In Hindi with subtitles, and in English. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.
Parent’s guide: PG (adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz East and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ.