Directed by: Ritesh Batra.
Written by: Ritesh Batra.
Starring: Irrfan Khan (Saajan Fernandes), Nimrat Kaur (Ila), Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Shaikh), Lillete Dubey (Ila's Mother), Nakul Vaid (Rajeev), Bharati Achrekar (Auntie), Yashvi Puneet Nagar (Yashvi), Denzil Smith (Mr. Shroff), Shruti Bapna (Mehrunnisa).
The Lunchbox could have easily devolved into a typical romantic comedy or an easy melodrama. The setup – that the famed lunchbox delivery system in Mumbai makes what we are told is the first mistake ever mixing up the meals delivered by a mediocre restaurant to an office drone on the verge of retirement, with the delicious home cooked meal by a stay-at-home mother, whose husband pretty much ignores her, and when the two realize the mix-up, they do not report it, but start exchanging letters through the lunchbox, slowly getting to know each other and falling in love – could have easily been made into a romantic drama as silly as The Lake House, or a romantic comedy as predictable as You’ve Got Mail. But the writer-director, Ritesh Batra, making his debut, is not really interested in making either of those films. His film is quieter and more introspective than that – and a good deal sadder than that, but not in a tearjerker type of way.
The office drone is Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) who is a month away from retirement. Like all, boring office drones in movies, he is an accountant who works in the claims department, and all he wants to do is be left alone to do his work – so he can go home at night to his empty apartment and smoke. He is a widower, and no one much likes him – and he doesn’t much care. He is given a comic foil early in the film when his boss announces that Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) will be taking over his job when he retires – and once Saajan to train him. Saajan does everything he can to avoid doing that – but after some time communicating through the lunchbox, and learning that Shaikh is a poor orphan who has had to fight for everything in his life, he changes his mind and takes the younger man under his wing.
The mother is Ila (Nimrat Kaur) - who works hard on the daily meals she makes for her husband – communicating with her Auntie, who lives in the apartment above her, mixing the exact spices for him. He works long hours, and when he is home, he`s always on the phone and ignores her, and their daughter. When she starts writing to Saajan, she doesn’t know anything about him – but starts telling him things she wouldn’t tell anyone else. By communicating with him, she starts to see the life she wants for herself. And the same is true for Saajan. There are separated by years in age – but in some ways want the same thing. Not a passionate love affair, but something calmer – just someone to talk to.
The movie doesn’t completely avoid the sentimentality in its premise – there is really no way around it. Some of the homespun wisdom the two share is basically maudlin clichés that only work because they are delivered so sensitively in the voiceovers of the two actors, and because Batra shoots the montages of those voiceovers so beautifully.
While the movie does a great job at showing day-to-day life in Mumbai – where everyone is busy, where long commutes are normal, where you are constantly surrounded by people, and yet completely alone – but its message is universal (couldn’t you write that same sentence about workers in New York or Toronto – or any major city).
The ending of the film is perhaps the only one that would make sense given everything that has come before it. The two people don’t really love each other – they barely know each other – but through their communications they get to know themselves better than before. Yes, that`s a cliché – as is much of the rest of The Lunchbox. But in this movie, the cliché works.