When most Westerners hear ‘Bollywood’, they pretty much instantly think of its most famous genre, ‘Masala’ – you know, the one with the song and dance numbers, the technicolour costumes, the hammy acting, and a plot that manages to veer through every human emotion over its three hour-ish running time. THE LUNCHBOX, quite obviously, not from that genre. Nor is it though, as Western marketing would seem to be trying to selling it, some kind of bubbly, zany romantic comedy. It’s better.
For those who aren’t familiar, Mumbai’s ‘dabba’ (lunchbox) delivery system is something of a wonder of the modern world. Many people who work in Mumbai offices prefer to eat a hot, home-cooked meal for lunch, and are hesitant to go out and eat street food (if you think lunch rush is bad in London or Manhattan, imagine the same thing in Mumbai). In the late 1800’s, a strategy was conceived to have work-from-home housewives cook full, hot meals, which are then delivered in tiffin boxes by a network of delivery men. After lunch, every tiffin is recollected by the same ‘wala’ (translating as ‘man who carries’) who delivered it, and returned to the exact same kitchen from whence it came. This means that the same office worker eats food prepared by the same cook every day. This dabbawala system is incredibly efficient, and prides itself on never making a mistake. But what if it did?
Irrfan Khan (LIFE OF PI) is Saajan, a widowed accountant nearing retirement. He’s efficient, if somewhat gruff to all around him, but beneath the no-nonsense exterior, he’s a lonely guy. At the beginning of his final month at work, Saajan is delivered the wrong tiffin, and the food is amazing. It’s exceptional because it was made by Ila (Nimrat Kaur) for her husband, whom she suspects of straying and whose attention and affection she is trying to recapture. Sajaan sends a complimentary note back with the tiffin, and a correspondence begins.
What makes THE LUNCHBOX so appealing is its insistence to avoid the tweeness of, say a CHOCOLAT or a WAITRESS, and is perhaps closer to 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD or EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN than SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. First time writer/director Ritesh Batra has created a pleasingly restrained, low key romance with plenty of warmth and just enough levity, without piling on the contrivance. Khan is fantastic as the solitary senior being reawakened by his sense of taste, and learning to reconnect not only with Ila, but in several great scenes with his young work replacement, the slightly shifty but determined Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). It’s a straightfoward and inoffensive film (I mean that in a good way) that’s never too saccharine and doesn’t shortchange the audience. Quite delightful.