Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox is a bilingual Indian romance between a lonely, young housewife and a cranky widower who are connected by chance through a lunchbox delivered through India’s famously accurate and intricate lunch delivery system. This rare glitch opens up a line of communication between the two residents of Mumbai who begin a correspondence through handwritten notes. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a mother of one whose busy husband neglects her. He rarely speaks to or pays any attention to Ila no matter her efforts in trying to start conversations or catch his gaze. She endeavours to get his attention through delicious home-cooked meals but her lunches are redirected to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a curmudgeonly government worker who plans to go into early retirement next month. Their nearly anonymous letters, sent back and forth each day, alleviate their shared loneliness. They talk to each other about their griefs and worries; Saajan misses his deceased wife and Ila feels depressed about her apathetic husband. The pair dream of escaping to the happy country of Bhutan and this hope brings them closer together, giving life and hope to their sad, mundane lives.
The Lunchbox handles its setting and story with great restraint. The bustling city of Mumbai is not exoticized (no shots of colourful spice markets here) but is shown to be just as crowded and dreary as any other metropolis in the world; Saajan’s train commute is as tedious and unpleasant as any other’s. His growing affection for Ila and the resultant change in his own grumpy disposition is slow but over the course of the two-hour film he begins to lighten up, even making friends with the friendly and eager young man who is poised to replace him when he retires. Saajan’s previously lonely evenings spent smoking on his porch change almost imperceptibly with Ila’s words of the day weighing on his mind in voiceover. Both of the main characters often hold the camera with their long, contemplative silences as they sit alone at work or at home. With two quiet protagonists, there are many instances where The Lunchbox uses various auditory cues to tell the story. The empty clank of the metal lunchbox is one; one half of a phone call taken off-screen is another. Ila’s upstairs neighbour, the never-seen Auntie, makes her presence known via a basket dangling on a rope outside Ila’s window, her booming cassette tapes, and her loud voice as she gives advice and keeps up to date with Ila’s life.
Ultimately, the love story in The Lunchbox is as delightful, slow simmering, and personal as one of Ila’s appetizing dishes.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 folded notes in the chapati