To the small but choice list of films that gracefully mix a passion for food with other potent emotions — think "Babette's Feast," "Eat Drink Man Woman," "Big Night," even "Ratatouille" — you can add one more: "The Lunchbox."
On everyone's lips, so to speak, after its successful debut at Cannes, this warm and affectionate human comedy from India is charming in a delicate and unforced way.
Written and directed by Ritesh Batra in his feature debut, "The Lunchbox" succeeds by leavening its simple story of mistaken identity with neo-realistic observations of ordinary middle-class life in Mumbai and environs.
Because he was determined that viewers take his story seriously, filmmaker Batra made sure to ground it in the specifics of this most chaotic of cities. The filmmaker told one interviewer that he wrote "less is more" on his shooting script, advice to himself he definitely took.
Central to "The Lunchbox's" conceit is the celebrated Mumbai institution of dabbawallahs, whose modus operandi we see under the opening credits. This network of deliverymen use bicycles and urban transit as well as an arcane coding system to deliver homemade lunches from housewives to office-working husbands.
Met first is Ila (a quietly luminous Nimrat Kaur), a housewife and mother introduced fixing a lunch for her businessman husband, Rajeev (Nakul Vaid), with the help and encouragement of her unseen but very vocal upstairs neighbor.
"This recipe will do the trick for you, one bite and he will build you a Taj Mahal," the neighbor says, and it soon becomes clear that Ila is worried about her husband's growing disinterest and hopes that a special meal prepared with love will begin to solve the problem.
For reasons that are never explained, the stacked tins containing Ila's careful cooking do not go to her husband but rather end up on the desk of Saajan, an insurance company accountant about to take early retirement after 35 years with the firm. A brash newcomer named Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) has already been hired to replace him, but Saajan doesn't have any interest in breaking him in.
As played by the veteran Irrfan Khan ("Slumdog Millionaire," "The Life of Pi"), the graying and reserved Saajan is a decent man, careful in his work and reserved in his personal relationships. A widower who clearly still grieves for his wife, Saajan normally gets his tins from a local restaurant, and Ila's cooking hits him with the force of religious revelation.
As for Ila, she soon understands that the man who is getting her food is not her husband. Naturally curious as to who this person might be, she encloses a small handwritten note in the folds of her naan bread. And so it begins.
Because Saajan is such an appreciative eater, Ila continues to send him food, and notes of greater and greater length go back and forth between these two as well. Gradually, as with the characters in Ernst Lubitsch's marvelous "The Shop Around the Corner," the daily reading of a note from someone they've never met becomes a central event in each of their lives. "We forget things if we have no one to tell them to," Saajan confides to Ila, and so it is for both of them.
Gradually and unexpectedly, this innocent connection affects the lives of both correspondents. Saajan, for instance, finds himself opening up to life in general, even taking more of an interest in Shaikh, his successor, than he would have thought possible.
One thing that makes "Lunchbox" so strong is that a touch of melancholy hangs over its sweetness. Finally this is a film about the wheel of life, about what helps us cope with its turns and find our way in its unforgiving labyrinth.
"Lunchbox" is not so much about our passion for food as it is about our hunger for human connection, even if the thought of it makes us nervous and uncertain. Something real hangs in the balance between Saajan and Ila, and this film has the grace to find a similar balance, neither pushing too hard nor pulling back too far. It's quite a feat for a first-time director and one that offers promise for the future as well as satisfaction in the here and now.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles