The Lunchbox

A mistaken delivery in Mumbai's famously efficient lunchbox delivery system (Mumbai's Dabbawallahs) connects a young housewife to a stranger in the dusk of his life. They build a fantasy world together through notes in the lunchbox. Gradually, this fantasy threatens to overwhelm their reality.

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  • ★★★★ review by Rida on Letterboxd

    There is a scene in The Lunchbox in which the protagonist peers at a display of apparently identical paintings only to realize that each painting is minutely different: the building and road is the same, but the people are always different. He even recognizes himself in one of the paintings, or thinks he does, and purchases it and hugs it to his chest during the commute home.

    The Lunchbox is like one of those paintings. Mumbai is always the same: flawed, crowded, and beautiful; but the people are different, and nearly every Indian watching The Lunchbox will recognize themselves in a scene, a line of dialogue, or a character. The Lunchbox is about middle-class India, the largest class in India, and yet the most underrepresented people in cinema. The West likes stories about the poor; Bollywood likes stories about the rich and beautiful.

    But The Lunchbox isn't a typical film, not for Hollywood, and certainly not for Bollywood. It has a certain old-world charm that makes its romance delicate, hopeful and wonderfully intimate. It's an epistolary film about the burgeoning romance between Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a soon-to-retire corporate employee, and Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young housewife with an indifferent husband. There's also Saajan's coworker Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who is eager to please, unintentionally funny, and desperate to become part of the middle class.

    It's utterly refreshing to watch director Ritesh Batra transcend cliche over and over again. Both Saajan and Shaikh are from minority communities, but they look and behave like everybody else, just as it is in real life. The odd little romance between Saajan and Ila is carried out through letters as they exchange extraordinarily intimate thoughts that they would never have been able to tell anyone in their lives. The actors are wonderfully restrained, speaking in quick jargon instead of in the measured, calculated tones heard in other Bollywood movies.

    Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui are often unfairly compared, as another reviewer pointed out, but aside from the fact that they don't usually act in mainstream Bollywood fare, there are very few similarities between the two, and The Lunchbox once again illustrates their differences. Irrfan Khan has perfected a certain persona: the monk among the crazies. He is always calm, quiet, and mildly bemused by everyone around him, the eternal outsider. He always brings across a quality of calm complacence, and pulls it off with a slightly new twist in each film.

    Nawazuddin Siddiqui, on the other hand, is a blank slate, almost unrecognizable in each film. He doesn't quite seem like a real person; he cannot be pinned down or explained. His role in The Lunchbox is refreshingly light and only hints at his vast range. It's marvelous, then, that Nimrat Kaur manages to not only equal the two actors, but to infuse her character with so much unsaid emotion despite the fact that she is usually acting alone, unlike the other two.

    The Lunchbox is a beautifully restrained film with only a few flaws. It fails to address several important issues in the characters' lives, and although its runtime is short by Bollywood standards, it could have been further strengthened by tightening the film by about twenty minutes. These flaws seem minute, however, when I recall all the things that the film accomplished so wonderfully.

    I watched The Lunchbox with my parents. My father lived in Mumbai for several years, and it's the only place in the world he considers home. He was besieged by memories of the city: the food, the air, the people, the trains. And my mother drew in her breath when Ila's mother says, "If I had a son, I wouldn't need to ask anybody for money." That's just how the film is: it draws from a collective memory of middle-class consciousness and in the process creates a bittersweet love story that always rings true.

  • ★★★★ review by Caty Alexandre on Letterboxd

    This film was very different from what I was expecting, first of all because it's an Indian film and you know what to expect from an Indian film. Always full of bright colors, happy dance sequences (or even sad dance sequences) and of course, lot of singing. The Lunchbox is nothing like that.

    The Lunchbox is a romantic drama about two strangers that start writing to each other because of a mistake in the delivery service of lunchbox's in Mumbai (I didn't knew about the Dabbawalas and it's an absolutely amazing system!). A young house wife is connected with an older and solitary widower, the man that receives her husband's lunchbox, and through those letters they developed a very strong and affective bond.

    The film has a melancholic atmosphere and it's very honest. The fact that it portrays ordinary lives gives it a truthful feeling about the situations that we are watching. The emotions are not exaggerated and the performances by the three leading actors are great.

    Irrfan Khan (who played the older Pi, in Life of Pi) gives an absolutely amazing performance. We can feel all the emotions that he wants to transmit to us and he does not need to force anything. Nimrat Kaur is very natural and portrays very well a woman who is not happy in her marriage life anymore. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is the funny character of this story and he really lights the atmosphere and will make you laugh in most of his scenes.

    The Lunchbox a good debut for the Indian director Ritesh Batra that is definitely influenced by the european cinema and did a good job also writing this love story. It is engaging and will be interested the whole time.

  • ★★★★ review by Arsaib Gilbert on Letterboxd

    [Favorites—2010s] [Indian Cinema: 2010s]

    There’s much to like about Ritesh Batra’s tender and wistful debut feature, The Lunchbox—an articulate and nuanced screenplay (the improbability of the film’s central conceit notwithstanding); a careful cultivation of a sense of time, place and emotion through editing; the way the ever-lively Mumbai is employed as both a comforting and alienating presence for the characters—but perhaps nothing else beats watching Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui onscreen together, which is simply one of the minor joys of 2013.

    Though they are often said to be cut from the same cloth, possibly due to the fact that both of them are generally seen in more artistically driven films, their approach to the art of acting is fairly different. Khan, who emerged onto the international scene with the British film The Warrior (2001), is a technically polished actor who tends to operate in the “classical” mode, to put it simply, relying on his command of expression, posture, movement, vocal control. And, though he accomplishes this more subtly than most other actors in India or Hong Kong, two countries whose film industries still rely on a star-based system, at times he even allows the viewer to see the actor behind the character. It is not surprising that many of his roles—Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool (2003) and 7 Khoon Maaf (2011), Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2013), this film—contain shades of the sage-like persona he emitted in his aforementioned breakthrough.

    Siddiqui, on the other hand, is a true chameleon—calling him a “method” actor almost seems beside the point. One of my favorite actors in movies today, he disappears into his roles like few I have ever seen. Even viewers who watched him recently as a drug-addicted gangster in Anurag Kashyap’s two-part Gangs of Wasseypur (2013) or as a hard-nosed I.B. Officer in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012) may have trouble believing that this garrulous character here is played by the same performer. Khan's Saajan Fernandez and Siddiqui's Aslam Sheikh—though this is not emphasized, both are minorities—beautifully balance each other out. I hope I am not giving Batra too much credit, but this first ever Indo-French-German co-production features quite possibly the most honest and unadulterated portrait of male friendship since Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (2002).

  • ★★★★ review by D K on Letterboxd

    The only difficult thing to believe about Ritesh Batra's quiet tale of food, alienation and unlikely connection is that it's his first feature-length film. He shows a confident hand in directing his would-be lovers, Nimrat Kaur and the always-magnetic Irrfan Khan, and builds for them a measured world with a steadily-beating heart that mostly resists sentimentality.

    Films about India, whether foreign or domestic, often reaffirm popular notions about the place: Mumbai is intensely chaotic and busy, Indian food is colorful and spicy, Indian families are large and very close, and so on. What I enjoyed here was that Batra isn't trying to contradict these images, but rather contextualizes them within the grounded experiences of his middle-aged protagonists. He shows you the anarchy of Mumbai, but also emphasizes the inventively-organized delivery system of the dabba-walas (lunchbox carriers), so efficient and error-proof it's studied by Harvard researchers. He takes some time to show you the delicious food cooked by Ila (Kaur) and the obvious relish of Saajan (Khan) in eating it, but this is a much more basic, day-to-day, ordinary home cooking, something you're unlikely to see in films like The Hundred-Foot Journey. Indian families do hew towards being larger and more involved than Western families, but Ila and Saajan are two pictures of loneliness and alienation, a point further exemplified by Saajan's friend Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an orphan who has learned to start his anecdotes with "My mother always says..." because he's found people take him more seriously that way.

    The film respects the emotional progression of its characters by granting that progression a lot of breathing room. With a less delicate script or a more trigger-happy director, this story of accidental connection would have become ludicrous very quickly. But because of Batra's restraint and the power of his two leads, as well as wonderfully subdued photography from Michael Simmonds and a score by the excellent Max Richter, the whole thing falls into an unlikely but intensely satisfying sense of harmony. Romance film, as a genre, has fallen into such formulaic disrepair that it's easy to forget that it's still possible for these stories to carry a sense of actual romance to them - not forced, not contrived, but organic and natural, unexpected and full of longing, spurring people to step into the pain of life for the mere risk of tasting its bittersweetness.

  • ★★★★½ review by Chris on Letterboxd

    I'm a sucker for moments of real human emotion that have been earned through character development and The Lunchbox has them in spades.

    A sweet, well-observed almost romance that offers up two fully-realized characters at crossroads in their lives. Through a chance mix-up a communication is started between a soon-to-be retired widower and a young, unhappy housewife. One of the joys of the film is watching the facial reactions of the two leads as they read the letters from one another. There is a lot of subtlety in the performances and they perfectly fit the subject matter. The plot has melodramatic elements but never strays into tiresome melodrama. Instead the movie stays as fresh as the cooking in it.

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