Directed by Ritesh Batra
Starring Irrgan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Drama, Romance, Comedy
Sitting in the theater for a screening of Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, I overheard someone comment that it was a “nice little movie.” I would agree with that assessment, however, this is a very well done “nice little movie.” Being my first modern foreign film experience in a while, I found excitement in telling myself what would happen if this were a Hollywood movie and was delighted to see Batra subvert those expectations. The result is a subtle, layered, and realistic film about a lunch delivery service in Mumbai, famous for not making mistakes, making a mistake.
A neglected housewife, played by Nimrat Kaur, in the midst of trying to woo her distant husband through her culinary excellence, realizes that through a mix-up her lunch is being sent to a nearly retired, lonely, man, played by Irrfan Khan. Sharing their loneliness, they begin to write back and forth in lunchbox notes. This plot immediately calls to mind that cheesy, technologically outdated rom-com from the 90’s with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, but unlike the shallow clichéd musings of their e-mail’s, The Lunchbox’s messages give us an entirely human view of aging, fear, hope, and quiet disappointment. Our characters alienation is played up by a dingy, crowded, Indian backdrop, where they are slowly beaten down by repetition and tedious monotony.
While this description makes the film sound incredibly dark, it just goes to show that a film can contain authentic humanity, and still be comfort food. Instead of non-stop unrealistically happy moments, the moments of joy feel earned, as nothing is handed to anyone.
This script is beautiful in its simplicity. Outside the main characters, the only characters serve to enhance those main two. Saajan Fernandes (Khan) shows positive growth from his slump as a retiring introvert, while training the man who will take up his job. Ila (Kaur) gets advice from an upstairs neighbor who we never see, while occupying herself with her daughter. The notes they exchange give them simple pleasure, a pleasure much more relatable than the grand gestures of most love stories.
What I found brilliant, as someone who is completely jaded over Hollywood conventions, is how The Lunchbox doesn’t go for the easy drama. When Ila becomes suspicious of her husband’s infidelity, there is no confrontation – no fight. We just watch her grow to live with her suspicions, realizing that she is now more invested in this mysterious stranger than her own husband. Her passivity is a clue to how he has treated her, even though the film only shows them interacting a few times.
Our two main actors do a tremendous job, especially Saajan Fernandes. With hints of Ikiru’s Kanji Wantanabe in his portrait of alienation, he is completely convincing. Even as a young man, I related to his insecurities over aging. As more of his story is filled in, and we learn the source of his early bitterness, he portrays his character growth in a completely convincing fashion. Nimrat Kaur’s performance was heartbreaking, but slightly more monotone. For her character, however, it worked.
Rom-com conventions tell us that this story must end with a bang. When it doesn’t, we are brought to earth, reminded of how limited in scope this is, how insignificant our personal troubles are to the world around us. And that becomes the thing our characters must accept. Saajan is no different than the aging men he sees sitting on the bus, no matter how much he craves the adventure that Ila brings to his life. Ila relates to a woman driven to suicide by isolation, but realizes she must choose her own way, free from the ties of others. Nothing is defined in the simple black and white terms. There are no life and death struggle, just slight growth and simple pleasures. Even with its open-ended conclusion, it is immensely satisfying.
The Lunchbox is as good as a film of its ambitions can be. It is not a perfect film though. It’s a “nice little movie.” Still I struggle to think of anyone who would take nothing away from it or derive no small joy from it. The film in itself is much like one of the two protagonist’s notes. But like one of those notes, it will not change a life in any grand way. It’s hard to diagnose any flaws, because it is quite effective for a film of its scope. However, it will never be anything more than a “nice little movie.” Comfort food at its finest.