Director Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox is the cinematic equivalent of a perfect cup of chai. Like an accomplished tea shop owner, mixing masala and tea leaves over a slow boil, Batra has concocted a love story that stirs passion, regret and longing into a subtle, potent blend.
Every morning, Mumbai housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) packs her daughter off to school and begins painstakingly preparing her husband’s afternoon meal, heating the wheat chapatis to just the right brownness and adding the perfect amount of coriander to his okra, or bhindi. An aged dabbawala rings her doorbell soon after to collect the meal and she hands him the lunchbox. Alternately shaded by banyan trees and pounded by the fierce tropical sun, it joins all of the city’s packed lunches on crowded trains and noisy streets until touching down on the husband’s desk.
It’s a beautiful system, all the more graceful for the contrast it makes with the overarching chaos of Mumbai. However, it isn’t perfect, and, due to a clerical error, Ila’s lunch takes a wrong turn and ends up at the desk of irritable bureaucrat Saajan (Irrfan Khan). The error persists, and once the two realize it, they start exchanging notes in the travelling lunchbox that day by day develop into an epistolary romance.
A plot such as this smacks incredibly of cliché, and the two facets of this film that keep it believable and save it from a seemingly trite premise are the remoteness and melancholy that plague its characters, and their actors’ correspondingly measured performances. Ila faces an emotionally distant husband who exchanges fewer than two sentences with her on a daily basis, and a life entirely spent cooking, cleaning or gossiping with upstairs neighbor Mrs. Deshpande from her apartment’s window. Saajan is a disgruntled widower who spends his evenings gazing hungrily at windows into neighboring families’ dinners as he heats up ready-made curries.
It immediately becomes clear just how replete the lives of Saajan and Ila are with solitude and monotony, as the highlight of each of their days arrives when one receives a note from the other commenting on something as quotidian as an awkward feel-up on the train or as wistful as a contemplation of life in a faraway land.
The excellent performances of Khan and Kaur only serve to further emphasize the emotionally disconnected life that many lead in metropolises like Mumbai, where it is notoriously easy to feel lost between the throngs in its streets, the slums on its roadsides and the unbridled chaos of its traffic.
Khan, who is known on first-name terms as simply “Irrfan” in Bollywood, is famous for his stoic, understated delivery. His stark manner can be exaggerated to a fault, as it was in Ashvin Kumar’s ostensibly poignant but ultimately aimless Road to Ladakh. However, when a director like Batra utilizes his performance effectively, Khan conveys a soliloquy’s worth of emotion in the slightest frown, and his characteristically taciturn demeanor makes Saajan’s rare outbursts of sentiment all the more powerful. When Khan’s remoteness is balanced effectively with his fleeting but gripping bouts of feeling, as in The Lunchbox or in Meera Nair’s The Namesake, the result is a cinematic treat to behold. Nimrat Kaur also does not disappoint in the skillful execution of her role as Ila, balancing the loneliness and longing of her existence with a frankness and verisimilitude that make her compelling while simultaneously keeping her from descending into oversentimentality. The combination of these measured performances makes Saajan and Ila’s relationship as beautiful as it is understated.
Apart from Khan and Kaur, Batra’s cast is intentionally sparse but a few commendable supporting cast performances emerge. Nawazuddin Siddiqui in particular shines as Shaikh, Saajan’s inept understudy who disguises his orphanhood with a blend of casual white lies and stubborn optimism. Bharati Achrekar as Ila’s ‘auntie,’ Mrs. Deshpande, despite never appearing on screen, manages to convey a hidden concern and care for Ila in her yelled conversations from the apartment above and in the spices she lowers for Ila, akin to deliveries of supplies and emotional support to a miner trapped in a cave-in.
Though the romance between Ila and Saajan abruptly stops and starts more than an auto rickshaw stuck in Bombay traffic, The Lunchbox’s characters, like the chaotic, burgeoning city they live in, are both rough around the edges and beautiful in their hidden complexity. Watching the film is not unlike staring at a block of concrete and finding a flower growing in the cracks, or better yet, opening just another day’s lunch and finding something you’ve never seen before innocently awaiting you.[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwYN-XS92yY]