Indian cinema has allowed itself to be boxed in as a riotously garish assembly line of Bollywood extravaganzas, effectively asphyxiating all other local productions that don't fit the cliché. That something like The Lunchbox fails to check that particular box, while checking a series of other boxes pertaining to the contemporary adult/prestige picture skirting the art-cinema circuit, is a good thing or a bad thing?
Writer/director Ritesh Batra's debut, produced by the influential director Anurag Kashyap, has enough smarts to come off as something more than a mere touristic/exotic version of Western melodramas, but in so doing it risks filling in the somewhat condescending slot of "Eastern films trying to be Western". It's a conundrum Mr. Batra couldn't quite escape even if he wanted to, and while The Lunchbox doesn't really present a formed filmmaking personality, it never loses itself in meandering side tracks and keep its central plot device in sight: a misplaced lunchbox, one of the thousands delivered daily by Mumbai's dabbawallas from wives' kitchens to their husbands' workplaces.
The director starts by cross-cutting between insecure housewife Ila (the lovely Nimrat Kaur), racing to cook lunch in time for the delivery service to pick it up, and the all-business Saajan Fernandes (the great Irrfan Khan), a paper-pusher near retirement, whose lunchbox for the day is unaccountably particularly delicious. Attentive filmgoers with no prior knowledge of the plot will guess that Ila's lunch has mistakenly been delivered to Fernandes, a situation that Mr. Batra skirts elegantly before confirming it about 20 minutes in. What follows, as Ila realises her packed lunch is being delivered to a "wrong person" who seems to appreciate her cooking a lot more than her own husband, is a charmingly decorous, if quaint, epistolary romance: the solitary housewife and the curmudgeonly widower start exchanging notes via the lunchbox, since neither exactly knows who it is they're talking with and have no other way of contact - or, rather, seem either scared of or uninterested in finding a way to actually meet each other.
This is where The Lunchbox shines: in keeping its two leads apart while tracing an effortless back and forth, in a superb editing job by John Lyons that makes you forget they're practically never in the same shot at the same time. It's this clever approach, along with Ms. Kaur and Mr. Khan's sensitive, sharply attentive acting, and Mr. Batra's eye feel for the bustle of Mumbai, that overcomes the somewhat banal self-help overtones of the tale, as both Ila and Fernandes pivot off their increasingly intimate correspondence to effect some changes in their staid lives, in a well-meaning but somewhat over-used arc that is embellished by its presentation. For all that, there's an undeniable appeal in The Lunchbox's disarming modesty, in its quiet sincerity, that makes it genuinely enjoyable, a distant but equally charming cousin of Ang Lee's masterful Eat Drink Man Woman.
India, Germany, USA, France 2013
Cast Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Director and screenwriter Ritesh Batra; cinematographer Michael Simmonds (colour, widescreen); composer Max Richter; designer Shruti Gupta; costumes Niharika Bhasin Khan; editor John F. Lyons; producers Arun Rangachari, Anurag Kashyap and Guneet Monga, DAR Motion Pictures, Rohfilm, Cine Mosaic, ASAP Films and Sikhya Entertainment in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma and National Film Development Corporation (India)
Screened April 28th 2014 (screener DVD, Lisbon)