The beauty of Ritesh Batra‘s debut feature The Lunchbox lies in its details. Its subtle moments of observation, small bursts of wit, deliberately casual pacing and most of all its nuanced performances make the film a charmingly refreshing romance unlike any we have seen in recent memory.
The Lunchbox is a small film, with a carefully assembled yet barebones cast. Debutante Nimrat Kaur plays Ila, a young married woman who prides herself on the food she cooks for her husband’s lunch everyday. There is a hint of desperation in her demeanor when she is first introduced. She is eager to rekindle her seemingly distant marriage by winning back her husband through food.
So she packs a lunchbox and sends it off with a dabbawala to her husband’s office. Mumbai’s lunchbox delivery system is known for its precision and accuracy, a globally lauded feat in a city of such chaos. However, this one time, they deliver Ila’s lunchbox to the wrong man — insurance bureaucrat Saajan, played by Irrfan Khan.
This one technical error sparks a delightful, and delicious, journey.
The two strangers begin exchanging notes through the lunchbox. They begin quite formally, commenting mostly on the food itself. Saajan’s blunt reviews of the food — “too salty”, “too spicy” — are matched by Ila’s efforts to refine her recipes, with the occasionally playful retorts to his straightforwardness.
As the conversation in their notes moves beyond food, Ila and Saajan gradually begin sharing their vulnerabilities with one another. The daily recipes too become increasingly complex.
Batra focuses his film solely on unraveling the layers of both characters. There is a simplicity to the approach, yet in the process we get to know these two lonely souls in such great detail that they could be people in our own lives.
Ila’s measured attempts at reconnecting with her increasingly distant husband carry a poignancy that evokes instant empathy. At the same time, Saajan’s widowed life as a man aging in a rapidly transforming city, speaks to our fears of loneliness and being left behind.
Consciously or not, Batra also manages to draw a parallel between the analog note-writing in the film and our current age of virtual or digitally-mediated relationships. There’s a romanticized comfort — and thrill, of sorts — in building a relationship with someone through editable words and messages. There is a greater ease, in many ways, in opening up more in a virtual relationship than in person.
While in The Lunchbox, this relationship is nurtured through handwritten notes and food, the resonance with online chatting (or other forms of digital communication) is the same.
Thrown into this delicate mix is Shaikh, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a jumpy and eternally optimistic young replacement for Saajan. Though initially annoyed by Shaikh, Saajan eventually befriends him. It’s a more tangible display of Saajan softening up because of his ongoing letter relationship with Ila.
Shaikh’s character in the story represents the struggle for upward mobility that pervades Mumbai life. He’s an orphan from a poor background, but his resourcefulness and positive attitude keeps him going through the city’s daily tussles. He also provides the balance to Saajan’s side of the story, whereas Ila has her opinionated “Aunty” upstairs who is never seen but always heard.
The Lunchbox doesn’t offer anything new in terms of style, technique or visuals. It stays well clear of the typically loud mainstream Bollywood fare, but also remains simple in its treatment. There’s a deep sense of nostalgia in the storytelling, with the pacing and the references to older music. There are lingering moments of appreciating — and at times, mourning — the decaying old charm of Mumbai.
Ultimately, Batra’s film is a gentle exploration of an unlikely love. It celebrates the city and its people through food. And it is food which allows two meandering souls to cross paths and find a connection with, and comfort in, one another.
The Lunchbox is an accomplished debut by Batra and is a deeply satisfying experience. You’ll find yourself eager for seconds.
The film opens February 28 in New York City and Los Angeles. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Pulkit Datta is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. He has written extensively on cinema and culture, and also independently writes and produces feature films, documentaries and shorts. Follow him on @PulkitDatta.