An Indian film by first-time director Ritesh Batra about a wrongly delivered lunchbox may sound like a surprising premise for a hit. However, as simple as the premise may be, The Lunchbox is endlessly charming, wry and gently comic, delivering a heart-felt story alongside a generous serving of realism.
The Lunchbox follows the story of Saajan, played perfectly by Life of Pi’s Irrfan Khan, a widower and ageing anonymous office drone, and his unlikely relationship with Ila, a lonely and undervalued housewife. The main action of the film is seen in one of the first scenes, when the lunchbox Ila makes for her husband is mis-delivered to Saajan’s desk, a far more appreciative consumer. Through the dabbawala lunch-delivery system the two strike up an emotional connection via the exchange of letters. What the film lacks in storyline it more than makes up for in substance.
Ultimately, The Lunchbox is a film about loneliness. Saajan is sucked up by the tedium of his office and Ila by the inattentiveness of her husband, both surrounded on all sides by the buzz of the busy Mumbai. However, while many a similar story may be at risk of false sentimentality, The Lunchbox shies away from such pitfalls, instead delivering a genuinely powerful film which refuses to answer the complex problems faced by the characters with cheap solutions.
The film delivers a healthy dose of modesty and truly adheres to the notion of holding back, favouring small character epiphanies over large-scale melodrama or heart-warming life lessons. While at times the plot looms dangerously close to soppiness, Saajan’s co-worker Shaikh’s repeated message that “the wrong train can get you to the right station” can at times get a little tiring, Batra always managed to steer away from mawkishness with a well-timed comic touch.
Offering mouth-watering images of Indian delicacies (I foolishly watched the film in the evening before dinner and had a rumbling stomach throughout) and stunning views of Mumbai, the film is a real feast for the eyes. While Betra’s debut may not be the cutting-edge of originality, it succeeds in making quiet but engaging observations about ageing, loneliness, regret, and the monotony of both an office and home environment.