Film Review: The Lunchbox

Like pineapple raita, <i>The Lunchbox</i> is sweet and savory, although its ending invites anxiety, like a too-spicy curry.

For well over a century, messengers have delivered daily meals to office workers in Mumbai, transporting lunchboxes, or dabbas, by bicycle, train and bus many miles from home to workplace, and back again. The dabbawallas, who inherit their jobs and are illiterate, rely on a code of colors and symbols to ensure each container reaches the right desk, yet just one in eight million goes missing (according to a recent Harvard study). The Lunchbox tells the story of that errant dabba.

Writer-director Ritesh Batra, making his feature debut, simmers down this concept from fulsome potage to a delicate if ambiguous consommé—a decoction that will taste sweet to some, bitter to others. The ingredients, at any rate, are of the highest quality: Affable Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi) delivers a restrained, nuanced performance as Saajan, an aging government functionary perpetually mourning the death of his wife; relative newcomer Nimrat Kaur co-stars as Ila, a frustrated housewife contriving to reawaken her husband’s interest with savory dishes. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds (Project Nim) brings his documentary experience to the project, a style well-suited to the segments involving the dabbawallas, and it blends brilliantly with Shruti Gupte’s kitchen-sink production design. Whatever might be said about The Lunchbox, the film convincingly captures Mumbai—here a city of grimy trains, etiolated skies and dun-colored polyester, a palette in contrast to the rich ochers and siennas of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

The Lunchbox begins with Ila preparing a special dabba to send to her husband, Rajiv (Nakul Vaid). When he returns home, however, he has nothing to say about the feast. Ila suspects the dabba was delivered to the wrong man, but since the lunchbox was wiped clean, the meal obviously enjoyed, she makes another and sends it with a note explaining the mix-up. The dabba comes back with a terse reply, “The food was very salty today.” Miffed, she cooks up still another lunch, this one suffused with hot peppers, and Saajan, the unwitting recipient of these culinary adventures, realizes his boorishness and writes an apology. Soon the two are exchanging notes not only about the food, but about their lives, regrets, dreams…

Batra allows Ila and Saajan’s relationship to evolve leisurely, like a slow-cooked vindaloo, and the film’s epistolary nature, with Khan and Kaur reading to each other in voiceover, evokes a lost world of earned intimacies and plaintive revelations—one with shops around the corners. Saajan is adrift, conscious of aging, worn down by routine. Ila is lonely and worried that her life, even at her young age, has begun to congeal.

Batra underscores his characters’ quiet desperation with expressive use of ambient noise. Saajan fancies he hears a woman crying as he opens one of Ila’s notes, the ceiling fans in his office turn into whirlwinds, the commuter train’s clacking wheels swell inside his head—exaggerations of his (and Ila’s) emotional states. Composer Max Richter (Wadjda, Penelope, Waltz with Bashir) uses permutations of pop songs, the lyrics one moment sung by street urchins, the next blaring from a tape deck, to harmonize the narrative.

Ila’s neighbor (Bharati Achrekar), whom she affectionately calls Auntie, serves as a kind of raisonneur, commenting off-screen from the apartment upstairs. Bollywood veteran Nawazuddin Siddiqui, looking like a young Tony Curtis, provides comic relief as Shaikh, the overeager but endearing clerk-in-training hired to replace soon-to-retire Saajan. The two men form a friendship that parallels the growing bond between Saajan and Ila, one of the film’s several subplots. The threads, like saffron dissolving in broth, fuse in the end, but Batra refuses to serve up a conventional ending. The notion that Saajan and Ila might live happily ever after, given their situations, would be too cloying for sophisticated palettes.