All too frequently, we are force-fed overly-sweet romances, processed and artificial. Their insincerity and unbelievability can cloy to retch-inducing effect. The Lunchbox is at least something more wholesome, but its exotic colours and presentation cannot conceal the familiarity of it all. Call it Brief Encounter-lite; it’s all familiar, but the real thing always goes down better. Still, Celia Johnson might have had a bit more luck with Trevor Howard if she’d whipped up some of the lunch platters proffered here. Let’s dig in.
It’s rare that Indian cinema makes a breakthrough to Western audiences. When it does, it usually involves funding and talent from outside India. The last notable example was the extravagant slice of poverty porn that was Slumdog Millionaire, a British film in all but setting. Ritesh Batra’s debut feature The Lunchbox is a very different look at life in modern India. A world away from squall and easily-sold triumphs over adversity, here we get a simple tale of everyday life with a just a little wish fulfilment thrown in for good measure. The film centres on the uniquely Indian phenomenon of dabbawallas, a network of delivery men who collect cooked meals from the homes of urban employees in the late morning to deliver them to the employees in time for lunch, before retrieving the remaining dishes to return them. It’s such a novel idea, yet so simple, and it gives root to a simple plot. With so many dishes and delivery men whizzing around Mumbai, is it not inevitable that some of them are wrongly delivered? Current statistics suggest the failure rate is one in eight million deliveries, but when Ila (Nimrat Kaur) sends a meal via dabbawalla to her husband (Nakul Vaid), it ends up on the desk of accountant Sajaan (Irrfan Khan).
Once Ila realizes the misunderstanding, she writes a note to Sajaan to apologize, but soon her plans to win her husband’s heat back through his stomach are forgotten; her epistolary relationship with Sajaan proves far more interesting. As all this goes on, it feels like Batra closely observed what makes Western screen romances tick and applied it to his script. Sajaan is a lonely widower, and is about to retire. The defining for this character are much as you’d expect; he’s bitter, he doesn’t like children and all he needs is an understanding voice to listen to him and for him to listen to in turn. Meanwhile, Ila (the second romantically-adrift film heroine with that name this year, after Emma Watson in Noah) finds her marriage is on shaky ground, as she suspects her husband is having an affair. To whom can she turn for advice? The disembodied voice of her auntie of the upstairs flat aside (and that sounds like a forced device, even in a review!), Ila takes her chances with Sajaan’s letters. Mercifully, this plot never gets overly mawkish or sentimental; a lot of that is down to the actors. Kaur and Khan’s wounded kindred spirits are likeable and generate a relatable chemistry, even across a city on handwritten notes. Trite though it may be, The Lunchbox’s lack of cynicism is its trump card. It’s not aiming for commentary or satire. It’s a little romance, no more and no less.
The simplicity of the setup is welcoming, but its lack of bite denies it much memorability. The Lunchbox’s makers have one eye firmly outside India, and its amiable leads and gentle story will ensure it finds an audience beyond the subcontinent. That said, whilst it’s a change to see India’s ever-growing middle class given a cinematic voice, there are doubtlessly more challenging stories waiting to be told from that point of view.