Title: The Lunchbox
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Ritesh Batra
Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Irfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Denzil Smith, Bharati Achrekar, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 1/8/14
Opens: February 28, 2014
If you’ve ever wondered about the nutty subjects that get funding for professors of the sciences, sociology and the like, your curiosity and amazement will be furthered by an item brought up in Ritesh Batra’s freshman work as a writer-director. Harvard University was once funded a study about the dabbawalla system in Mumbai. Workers in that overcrowded, chaotic city do not always pick up their meals at a local market when they leave for the offices. This would mean cold lunches in places that do not have microwaves to zap the contents. The dabbawallas, i.e. delivery men, 5000 strong in Mumbai, pick up hot lunches from the wives and significant others of the office drones, delivering the food promptly to the chosen bureaucrats just before one p.m. lunchtime, then taking the empty containers back to the folks who prepared the parathas, the cauliflower curries, the dal, the mulligatawny soups, and maybe some gulab jaman for dessert. As we learn during the unfolding of this sometimes epistolary drama, food can be a substitute for love, even for men who ignore their wives at home but whose eyes might sparkle when they unfold the elaborate, metal-enclosed dishes that serve as receptacles for the strongly-spiced meals. Oh, yes. The Harvard University study found that while those who deliver the food are illiterate, only “one time in a million” does the lunch arrive at the wrong desk.
“The Lunchbox” is about that one. Though the story is predictable, the subject matter safe, the actors never showing physical affection, “The Lunchbox” is about a respite for a man with 35 years’ service as a claims adjuster who always sits alone in the office cafeteria, never breaks a smile, and treats a person he is training to take over after a retirement with supreme indifference. There is an array of comic moments in the film, some crackerjack acting, a reasonably involving script plus improvisation, and overall a cute story that gives us in the audience some room for optimism, even happiness for the poor, widowed, working slob who, absent the mix-up in lunchbox deliveries, would fade away a broken man.
Saajan (Irrfan Khan)—known even by American kids for his role in “Life of Pi” and by sophisticated cinema-buffs for his presence in “Slumdog Millionaire”—anchors the story as an unhappy man whose wife had passed away some time back. With nobody to pack lunches for him, he relies on the outdoor market for undistinguished food until he finds himself in possession of a delicious, hot meal delivered by mistake to his desk from housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur). Ila, who would like more affection from her distant husband but who gets only nasty comments about the lunches he thinks she prepares, is surprised to find a note inside the lunch containers from Saajan, complimenting her on her skills in the kitchen. Notes are exchanged daily—actual letter writing in our age of emails—wherein Ila describes her woes, the problems with her husband perhaps trivial compared with the fate of her “auntie,” living upstairs with a man who for fifteen years has been virtually comatose.
We don’t expect a wild romance as an outcome, given the difference in age between the widower and the housewife, but we in the audience can take pleasures in getting a look at a city with commuter trains packed with people and making more noise than the New York subways and especially with the give-and-take between Saajan and a protégé (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) whom the older man must reluctantly train to take over his work but who steadily breaks into daily smiles thanks to the young man’s friendship and the unhappy woman’s notes.
Unrated. 104 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B-
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B