I am a sucker for epistolary movies. Throw in ethnic food and cookery, and you’ll have me on toast points.
The Lunchbox (2013) stars Irffan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, and is the first full-length feature by director Ritesh Batra (who also wrote the screenplay and produced the film). Western movie-goers might recognize Khan from movies such as Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Darjeeling Limited, but most of his work–as almost all his co-star Kaur’s work–has been in Indian cinema.
The story is set in Mumbai, a place of contradictions and juxtapositions between old and new, modern and old-school. Ila (Kaur) is a young housewife who cooks a lunch for her husband every day and sends it to him using the city’s arcane but incredibly efficient lunchbox delivery service. One day, however, the lunch she prepares goes astray, and is delivered instead to Saajan (Khan), a middle-aged widower who works at an insurance office. Ila quickly realizes that her husband didn’t get the lunch she prepared but can see that whoever did get it, enjoyed it, and so in the next day’s lunchbox, she includes a note.
Thus, a correspondence begins, filled with food, secrets, dreams, and hopes.
When describing movies set in India, one often hears the words “vibrant” and “exotic,” but not here. The high-impact colors and the cultural exposition–staples in India-centric movies destined for Western cinemas–are absent from Batra’s unusually understated Mumbai. Instead, we see a more realistic version of Indian middle-class life in which the colors are more subdued, white fabrics are a bit on the dingy side, the streets scenes are grey, and the backstreets shaded and cramped.
It’s a quiet story, and Batra tells it with exceptional restraint. He gives his actors time to show us their thoughts and emotions without words. The direction is by turns both intimate–as when Saajan tries to hide the note he’s received from a co-worker–and voyeuristic, such as when Ila is preparing the laundry and the camera, instead of moving in close, stays down the hallway, watching her without intruding.
This isn’t a “foodie” film like Babette’s Feast or Eat Drink Man Woman, but food plays an integral part nonetheless. The lunchbox becomes a messenger, a courier between the two, but it also brings Saajan (a quiet man nearing retirement) out of his shell among his co-workers, specifically with the man who is to be his replacement.
There are sub-plots and cultural insight a-plenty here, but don’t expect any car chases or broken-in doors. The Lunchbox focuses on its characters and their growth as they discover themselves and their own unsuspected strengths.