A standout in the Cannes Critics Week that has already generated potent word of mouth, The Lunchbox is a charming first feature that describes denizens of the sprawling Mumbai metropolis in a tender, ingenious tale of romance by correspondence. Instead of using modern social media, the virtual couple meets through a lunchbox mix-up that could only happen in India. What is most endearing is the delicacy with which writer-director Ritesh Batra reveals the hopes, sorrows, regrets and fears of everyday people without any sign of condescension or narrative trickery. The co-production among India, Germany, France and U.S. benefits from fine production work and should make its way beyond festivals into international marketplaces.
At the heart of the film is the incredible system of “dabbawallahs,” a community of lunchbox delivery men who deliver thousands of hot meals cooked by housewives every morning and deposited on their husbands’ office desks. The containers are then returned back home in the afternoon. Just watching the white-capped men bicycle the lunchboxes rain or shine is a jaw-dropping hoot. As one delivery man proudly recalls, their system has been the subject of a Harvard University study, which concluded that only one in a million lunchboxes goes astray. The film is about that one.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a pretty housefrau who is trying to win the attention of her extraordinarily distracted husband (Nakul Vaid) through his stomach. Despite her sense of humor, goodwill and culinary skills (aided by the disembodied voice of an old lady upstairs who offers advice), the guy just won’t look at her. Her lunchbox is delivered to the wrong desk one day; the surprised beneficiary is a lonely accountant on the verge of retirement, Saajan (Irrfan Kahn). Realizing the mistake that has occurred, Ila encloses a note the next day in which she impulsively reveals some of her frustrations to the perfect stranger. He writes back and, day after day, in handwritten notes that always maintain a dignified tone, they become intimates in a sort of non-literary 84 Charing Cross Road correspondence.
Adding to the warm, low-key performances of Kahn (Slumdog Millionaire, The Life of Pi) and film and stage actress Kaur is an essential third ingredient: the ingratiating apprentice accountant Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who impressed in Cannes entries Bombay Talkies and Monsoon Shootout), who Saajan is supposed to be breaking in as his replacement. An orphan and self-made man, Shaikh has a good heart that slowly breaks down the gloomy wall Saajan has built around himself since his wife’s death. Although he’s one of the office workers who receives no lunchbox and has to make do on a couple of cheap bananas, Shaikh is the embodiment of cheerfulness and courage in the face of hardship.
Professionally lensed by Michael Simmonds, edited by John Lyons, and graced with just-right music by Max Richter, the film poses no pacing or technical problems for Western audiences. Yet it remains a very Indian tale in its delicacy and humor — especially in the way it sweeps its characters up in a vast social grid that includes over-crowded trains and traffic jams, industrious workers and complicated marriages. Long before the end of the film, you are rooting for everybody to find his or her slice of happiness and to reach the right station, even if someone takes the wrong train.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics Week), May 19, 2013.
Production companies: Sikhya Entertainment, DAR Motion Pictures, NFDC, Roh Films, ASAP Films, Cine Mosaic
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Nakul Vaid, Lillete Dubey
Director: Ritesh Batra
Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra
Producers: Guneet Monga, Anurag Kashyap, Arun Rangachari
Co-producers: Nina Lath Gupta, Shanaab Alam, Vivek Rangachari, Sunil John, Nittin Keni, Karsten Stoter, Benny Dreschel, Cedomir Kolar, Marc Baschet, Danis Tanovic
Director of photography: Michael Simmonds
Production designer: Shruti Gupte
Editor: John Lyons
Music: Max Richter
Sales Agent: The Match Factory