Irrfan Khan as Saajan Photo by Michael Simmonds, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Ila has spent countless hours with cookbooks all to win back her husband’s distant heart. Lunch is an artform in Mumbai and Ila is convinced that her multi-course extravaganza, carefully stacked in separate tin compartments, packed in a distinctive thermal bag and hand delivered by one of the famous services specializing in timely and efficient delivery to the intended recipient will not only impress her husband but achieve the desired result. He has been working late many nights, leaving her alone with their young daughter with little to fill her hours; when he is home, he has no conversation and pays little attention to her whether in the kitchen or in the bedroom. Day after day, awaiting even the smallest compliment on her elaborately prepared lunchbox, he finally mentions that the cauliflower dish was pretty good. Puzzled, Ila says nothing but the light goes on. Someone else has been receiving his lunch.The lucky recipient is Saajan Fernandes, a claims adjuster on the cusp of retirement. A dour and lonely widower, Fernandes is impressed with the meal being delivered from the rundown luncheonette he has used for some time. He suspects nothing of the mixup until one day he finds a note tucked into the compartment holding his naan (flat bread). A correspondence slowly begins between the lonely Ila and the sour Fernandes. With each passing day, the notes warm and lengthen, gradually sharing frustrations and advice. The cold and withdrawn Fernandes begins to warm and Ila, fully recognizing her husband’s betrayal, becomes more self-assured and empowered to fashion her own future.
Written and directed by Ritesh Batra, “The Lunchbox” is an in depth study of the two main characters. Like peeling back the layers of an onion, the notes, at first cursory and gradually confessional, Ila and Fernandes are revealed as they begin to question what they want out of life and whether it is even feasible to attempt change all within the anonymity of their missives. A psychological drama disguised as a romantic comedy, the fluff, flirtations and hopes, however, are always overshadowed by dark clouds. Certainly there are elements of “Sleepless in Seattle” but the happy ending is not assured and Batra purposely delivers an ending that is extremely ambiguous.
Batra is a master of character development as within this deceptively thin plot both protagonists change incrementally before our eyes. Fernandes begins to notice those around him and how his previous coldness perplexed and hampered those with whom he came in contact – from the children in his apartment complex to the young man assigned to him for training. Ila, meek, desiring little in life and only for others, begins to realize that she is entitled to more but that its achievement is ultimately dependent on her, not on her wayward husband or bitter mother.
But “The Lunchbox” successfully hides another, more important, agenda within the romance; much like a velvet hammer, Batra reveals the melancholy of the woman who is shackled to her marriage and husband because without them she will have no support system. Clearly divorce is out of the question, both socially and financially, and the plight of women in similar situations is quite dire indeed. Ila is as powerless to regain her husband’s affection as she is to maintain her present situation.
Michael Simmonds, the cinematographer, has filmed Mumbai in all its claustrophobic, noisy, dirty, crowded fast-paced glory effectively making it as much a character as any of the other actors.
Nimrat Kaur as Ila is luminous, melancholic, hopeful, tragic, and romantic, often simultaneously. Irrfan Khan as Fernandes, sour, sad, private and mysterious conveys all the heroism of a modern Lancelot without recognizing the eventual triumph of his soul. Gifted with an ability to show the depth of his emotions and sadness within his eyes, he draws us in much further than words on a page make possible. The other actor of note is Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the young trainee whose annoying constant presence is the sand to Fernandes’s oyster.
A surprising film of depth, warmth, sorrow and romance, “The Lunchbox” deserves to be seen by a wide audience.
In English and Hindi with subtitles. Now playing at the Laemmle Royal and the Sundance Sunset.