The better the obstacles to love and happiness, the more bittersweet the romance. That’s a reminder from “The Lunchbox,” an Indian film (in English and Hindi) that remembers it’s not sizzling sex scenes that make movie love stories work, it’s the longing.
Mumbai’s famous lunch delivery system — in which wives cook meals that are then picked up by bicycle delivery men to transport, in their hundreds and thousands, to the correct office worker husbands in buildings all over the city — has been studied and puzzled over in the West for years. Little or no paper work, bikes crowded with stacked cylindrical lunchboxes that are transferred to trains, trotted up to buildings where an office clerk drops them at the proper desks — it is a daily marvel of inscrutable efficiency.
First-time writer-director Ritesh Batra builds a sad-eyed romance around that rare mistake, a blunder that hurls two lonely people together.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur of “One Night with the King”) is a doting mother and wife who pours energy and her mother’s recipes into her husband’s daily lunch. But Rajeev, that husband, doesn’t notice. And then, her lunches start going to the wrong address.
Saajan (Irrfan Khan of “Life of Pi”) is a grim-faced accountant on the verge of retirement. Widowed, standoffish, his drudgery is only interrupted by the annoying appearance of Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a gratingly charming underling he’s supposed to train to take over his job.
Then these wonderful meals — eggplants and curries, rice and chapatis (flatbreads) to die for — start showing up. He figures his restaurant service suddenly got good, which his cynicism cannot explain.
“There’s no value for talent in this country.”
But Ila, seeing the licked-clean pots and questioning the husband who ignores her, figures it out. She doesn’t correct the mistake. At least a man appreciates her cooking. She writes him a note.
And that’s how it begins, a neglected wife, emptying her heart into food and notes that read like poetic diary entries, an emotionally dead older man lighting up, ever so slowly, at her attention, passing on marriage advice but plainly touched by her predicament and how her predicament makes him feel.
That’s where this film makes its home — the fantasy of flirtation, the romance of finding someone who listens to you and sympathizes. Batra goes to pains to fill this movie about love letters with retro-tech, Saajan doing his work by pen and calculator, watching old videotapes when he gets home. Ila confers with her never-seen upstairs aunt on recipes, life lessons and the like, shouting through the window, sending ingredients upstairs or downstairs via rope basket, listening to old-fashioned cassette tapes.
Will Ila and Saajan meet? Will things turn illicit? Can a fantasy survive a dose of reality?
Kaur is a vital, expressive actress who gives a compassionate performance here, and Khan, with the most mournful eyes in the movies, tells us far more about what he is thinking or feeling with his face than with his character’s few words.
It’s an intimate, quiet and slow-paced romance, a simple, richly rewarding movie in the classic style of India’s greatest filmmaker, the late Satyajit Ray. Batra uses Ray’s serene little slices of Indian life style to comment on the clash not of Old India against New India, but of Recent India colliding with Now India. His “Lunchbox” serves up a multi-course meal of life, love and the sort of coincidences that drive the best love stories.