Internationally, Mumbai's dabbawallas, or lunch deliverymen, are recognized for their efficiency in transporting hot food from households to the workplace via various modes of transport. Debut director Ritesh Batra's humane and humble The Lunchbox, however, isn't interested in depicting the nuances of this delivery system that's garnered the approval of Harvard University and The New York Times. Instead, he constructs a compassionate narrative around one outlier lunchbox that's delivered to the wrong address.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a middle-class housewife battling tedium at home, attentive to her daughter, but deeply unsatisfied with her neglectful and passive husband, who's too preoccupied with his phone to appreciate his wife's warm presence. As such, Ila consults her Auntie to create transcendent and vibrant dishes in hopes of reviving her husband's heart through his tastebuds. "This new recipe will do the trick for you," her Auntie promises. The earnest attempt backfires, however, when Ila's lunchbox ends up on the paper-filled desk of veteran claims clerk Saajan (Irrfan Khan, brilliantly understated), a widower who's set to retire at the end of the month after 35 years of bureaucratic service. After learning that her husband didn't receive the meal she poured her heart into, Ila includes a confessional letter alongside the naan on the second day, aware that the delivery glitch will transpire again. Saajan, touched by the idea of a wife hoping to revive her marriage, returns the emptied lunchbox with a receptive and advice-laden note equally full of honesty about his personal life. Thus begins an epistolary friendship that's comforting in its anonymity and cathartic as an outlet of expression for two increasingly lonely souls.
Batra impressively captures the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, its overpopulated offices, trains, and streets, while also carving out his characters' individual identities and allowing them to breathe within this crowded milieu. Although he relies on a fairly flimsy premise built on coincidence, he explores the interior lives of Ila and Saajan as they navigate their own indecision (Ila is worried she may have to leave her impassive husband, while Saajan anxiously questions his plans for retirement). The patience in mercurially presenting the characters' backstories and desires is matched by the film's warm tone, which is anchored by a genuine curiosity about the healing power of sharing stories, as Ila slowly develops the strength to overcome the fear of change in her life, and Saajan becomes engaged with his surroundings again after becoming alienated from society as a result of his wife's death and his repetitive job.
Above all, The Lunchbox is an endearing observation of the spiritual, life-revitalizing powers of both food and communication. As Saajan explains to Ila, "You let me into your dreams and I want to thank you for that," and it's this spirited generosity that allows the film to avoid the trappings of more conventional feel-good narratives. Like Lost in Translation, the plutonic intimacy of the central relationship is built on personal emancipation and earned pathos, not codependency. Wisely, Batra never reduces the material to reductive romantic tension or mawkish melodrama, nor does the Mumbai-born filmmaker fetishize the locale for Western consumption. His characters make life-changing decisions based on what's best for themselves and without concern for the audience's tear ducts, and refreshingly offers a denouement that remains true to the perceived motivations of the characters he's lucidly developed. The Lunchbox doesn't go for gravitas by depicting how we lean on others to give us life, but how human connection can provide context and memories from which we can learn about what's best for ourselves.