Through her cooking, middle-class Mumbai homemaker Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is looking to literally spice up her marriage to her distracted husband. She prepares delightful new dishes for him to eat at his workplace, conveying them via the dabbawallahs – lunchbox deliverymen, most of whom are illiterate, who, for 120 years, have fanned out across the sprawling city on their bicycles. Mathematicians have studied their elaborate coding system that all but ensures that only one in a million lunchboxes will ever be delivered to the wrong address. “The Lunchbox” is about that one in a million.
The pleasantly shocked recipient of Ila’s confections is Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a woebegone widower and government accountant who is planning to retire after 35 years of service. When his lunchbox, as is customary with the dabbawallahs, is returned to its sender, Ila is delighted to find its contents licked clean – until she coyly asks her husband how he liked the meal and realizes from his response the mistake. The two men apparently received each other’s lunch.
Rather than correct the error, Ila persists in creating new dishes for her appreciative mystery man, including personal notes in the returned lunchboxes to which Saajan responds. Their relationship becomes an epistolary romance of sorts. The question, of course, is, will they eventually meet?
I realize this sounds rather cloying, and I suppose in less judicious hands it would have been. But Batra has a gentle, glancing touch. He avoids most (though not all) of the schematic pitfalls in this scenario. Apparently he began the project as a documentary on the dabbawallahs and then spun it off into a scripted romance.
He’s fortunate in having cast Kaur and Khan as his leads. She has a sensual grace and conveys longing without getting all gloppy on us. Khan, well known to Western audiences for films such as “The Namesake” and “Life of Pi,” is simply one of the best actors in the business. He can convey more with a slightly raised eyebrow or the droop of a lip than most performers can achieve utilizing their entire bodies and reams of dialogue.
Batra captures well the crushing bustle of modern Mumbai and the ways in which Ila and Saajan, in their very different ways, are trapped by circumstance. We never see Ila outside her apartment, a gilded cage she shares with her husband and young daughter. Saajan’s workplace is a drably lit office complex. We can certainly see why he wants out, although his home life is not much of a respite. After-hours he smokes and dozes and watches old videos of comedy shows his wife loved. There is no mystery in his life. He enjoys giving Ila advice about her troubles (he tells her that having another child might rescue her marriage), but he has no illusions about his own.
Saajan is drawn out of his funk (sort of) when he is asked to mentor an overeager young assistant, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, in a beautiful performance), an orphan who is primed to replace him. Rebuffing him at first, Saajan ends up befriending Shaikh, even attending the young man’s wedding as the sole member of his entourage.
Batra deftly finesses the will-they-or-won’t-they potholes in the plot. If he never quite moves the story into Chekhovian terrain, he does at least manage to make it into something more than an Indian O. Henry knockoff. He also plays down the film’s foodie aspects, which is just fine with me. Lately there’s been altogether too much food preparation on our screens (worst offender: “Labor Day”). If I want to watch that sort of thing, I’ll check out the Food Network. Grade: B+ (Rated PG for thematic material and smoking.)