'Daily special' takes on a new meaning.
The last place one might expect to find the Lubitsch touch would be in The Lunchbox, Indian writer-director Ritesh Batra's debut film. Yet if you disregard the sights and sounds of modern Mumbai for just a moment while the story unfolds, you might imagine yourself in Manhattan during another era, watching as James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan exchange notes in The Shop Around the Corner.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is trying to spark the interest of her indifferent husband by preparing spicy lunches for him to eat at work. But her special creation is mistakenly delivered to dour, about-to-retire Saajan (Irrfan Khan), sparking an interesting correspondence between the two. They send notes back and forth through the lunchbox and share details about themselves they wouldn't normally divulge to strangers. An entire film could be made about the elaborate lunch-delivery system in Mumbai, whereby deliverymen called dabbawallahs collect homemade hot lunches from wives' kitchens each morning and deliver them to their husbands' workplaces. Then, in the afternoon, they return the empty lunchboxes to the wives. It's a historic and complex system that prides itself on a scarcity of mistakes, so much so that it has been studied by management experts at Harvard University.
The Lunchbox is the kind of off-Bollywood movie we rarely get to see in the U.S. Unlike Bollywood's masala movies, which contain liberal amounts of singing, dancing, action, romance and comedy, this is an engaging portrait of two lonely people who share handwritten intimacies that they express to no one else. Much is conveyed through subtle observations, without the need to stage a whole song-and-dance around each discovery. The characters' actions are brave yet tentative, humorous and self-aware. The recipient of many awards and popular on the film festival circuit, this movie offers us a real treat -- a naturalistic glimpse of middle-class life in modern Mumbai -- along with heartfelt odes to delicious dishes like chicken korma, and the waning art of letter writing.