The kind of unassuming foreign film that is subtle but adds an impressive substance. The Lunchbox (India, Hindi in English subtitles) is the kind of slow-moving, faintly nuanced, and observant character study that you invest yourself like a good book that unfolds shade by delicate shade. Saajan is played by the renowned Indian actor Irrfan Khan, who plays a man on the verge of retirement. The way he works for a bureaucratic government agency that doesn’t create anything reminded me of the protagonist of the essential Japanese classic “Ikiru” (1952). In this scenario, his doldrums are lifted when he begins to play pen-pal to an unknown woman who has been making his lunch.
The woman is unhappily married Ila (Nimrat Kaur), who is justly unhappy when she figures out her husband is cheating on her and is likely to leave her. Each day at work she confesses her regrets, doubts, loneliness and dissatisfaction through the notes. Saajan, who begins with notes that say “delicious” or criticize “too salty” in terms of food, begins to respond to this unknown woman’s laments. She was once vivacious and sexy, we sense, but has since become neglected and unheard with a husband that never makes eye contact with her. Another good woman that deserves better, and needs a savior.
Saajan becomes an invisible friend and savior to her. Saajan offers her warm advice and thoughtful wisdom, but the thoughts and feelings he has open him up in ways he hasn’t felt for years, alas, he is awakened from his slumber. Saajan doesn’t go out and create anything new to change the world. But he does warm to Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a new colleague in training that was to be his department replacement that he had initially brushed off coldly. Unlike Saajan, the young man has a pluck and enthusiasm for life that has long eluded the elder. In a way, his love felt for an unknown woman has lifted his spirits.
Amid the story development is the backdrop of Mumbai itself, a bustling city with all walks of life including the dabbawallas, the lunch delivery service that is regarded as faultless except in this one occurrence where Saajan ended up getting some other man’s food. And of course, these exchanges bring upon a possibility of love between the older Saajan who is reaching that brink of final prospect of love in life, and the womanly Ila who has a big heart and tremendous cooking skill. Things don’t conclude as easily or patchily as one would fear though, for “The Lunchbox” dodges cliché. Ritesh Batra (an accomplished screenwriter), in his directing debut, has made a thoughtful non-Bollywood drama that is immersive into quiet lives.
104 Minutes. Unrated. Hindi in English subtitles.
FOREIGN FILM / FOOD FOR THOUGHT MOVIE / WEEKEND AFTERNOON REFLECTION
Film Cousins: “Ikiru” (1952, Japan); “Salaam Bombay!” (1988, India); “The Song of Sparrows” (2008, Iran); “Trishna” (2012, India).