In movies, the epistolary story has taken many forms from an exchange of finely wrought letters in “84 Charing Cross Road” to the online correspondence between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in “You’ve Got Mail,” where neither realizes the other is a despised business rival.
In “The Lunchbox,” first-time feature writer-director Ritesh Batra has come up with a wonderful new approach, one that could literally only happen in the teeming Indian metropolis of Mumbai. The two highly unlikely correspondents in this movie meet, if that’s even the right word, through an even more unlikely mixup in that city’s unique system known as the “dubbawallahs.”
This is a lunchbox delivery system, 120 years old, whereby about 5,000 delivery men or dubbawallahs convey thousands of hot meals cooked by housewives to their husbands at work every day. A Harvard University study, cited proudly by one dubbawallah in the movie, in fact, has concluded that only one in a million boxes goes astray.
Naturally, this movie is about the one that does.
In a desperate bid to win the attentions of her very distracted husband, Ila (stage actress Nimrat Kaur) goes all out on a culinary feast prepared for her husband’s lunch. She is aided by an elderly and unseen upstairs neighbor who sends down special spices in a basket lowered to Ila’s kitchen window.
Alas, the box gets delivered not to the husband but rather to a lonely government accountant on the verge of retirement, Saajan. (He is portrayed Irrfan Kahn, a major Indian actor playing slightly older than he actually is).
Amazed that the fragrant, yummy lunch could have come from his usual takeout spot, Saajan cleans the metal plates so thoroughly that when returned to Ila, she suspects it must have gone to the wrong man. Her husband’s refusal to praise the lunch beyond a grunted thanks confirms Ila’s suspicions.
The following morning she encloses a handwritten note to get to the bottom of this mystery man. Saajan dutifully writes back — after all he seems to be benefitting from this excellent cooking. Thus begins a correspondence over the next several weeks as the two men keep getting each other’s apparently mis-coded lunchboxes.
Through these exchanges you get to know these two individuals intimately. Their mutual isolation, longings, frustrations and concerns about the future come across in these essentially anonymous notes.
Each feels trapped by his or her life. Each is haunted by a past: In Saajan’s case it’s the loss of a beloved wife without ever having a chance to fully express his love. Perhaps he, like Ila’s husband (Nakul Vaid), ignored her. In her case, a brother committed suicide when he failed to achieve high scores in a school test.
Ila has a loving daughter but her husband ignores her and soon she has reason to suspect he’s having an affair. Meanwhile Saajan dwells in the past and interacts with colleagues and neighbors as little as possible.
Mumbai residents would recognize that each of these characters lives in neighborhoods far enough apart, both geographically and socially (his being an old Christian neighborhood while hers is a middle-class Hindu enclave), that these two would never meet except for the lunchbox mix-up.
Then a third party is interjected into these warm, low-key performances. Saajan is supposed to train an apprentice accountant, Shaikh (up-and-coming actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui), to take over his duties upon retirement. But he mostly avoids him.
The irrepressible young man, an orphan and self-made man, does break through Saajan’s reserve though, even to the point of accompanying the older man on his bus ride home. Soon Saajan is sharing his delicious luncheons with his colleague.
In this interaction you gain further insight into Saajan as both he and Ila separately contemplate actually meeting in person. That would be a bold step in any society, given their many clear differences, most especially in age.
“The Lunchbox” is thoroughly engaging slice of life that fully illuminates the lives of characters caught not in tragic or highly dramatic circumstances but in the age-old problem of lives lived, as the saying goes, in quiet desperation.
In the credits, one might notice that one of producers is Anurag Kashyap, in his own right a top indie director — his political thriller “Black Friday” made a strong impression. Lately, he has been mentoring a new generation of Indian filmmakers so no doubt Batra benefitted from his involvement.
Then too, “The Lunchbox” is an Indian-German-French-American co-production that clearly reaches out to overseas audiences. The film, lensed by Michael Simmonds, edited by John Lyons and graced with fine music by Max Richter, debuted at 2013 Cannes.
So “The Lunchbox,” one of the very few Indian productions ever distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, is part of a new wave of Indian cinema geared for international release.
Which is not to say the film is not thoroughly Indian. Yet its makers sagely dwell on universal truths involving complicated marriages, the stress of urban life and the pursuit of happiness.
Opens: February 28, 2014 Los Angeles, New York (Sony Pictures Classics)
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/screenwriter: Ritesh Batra
Producers: Guneet Monga, Anurag Kashyap, Arun Rangachari, Nina Lath Gupta, Shanaab Alam, Vivek Rangachari, Sunil John, Nittin Keni, Karsten Stoter, Benny Dreschel, Cedomir Kolar, Marc Baschet, Danis Tanovic
Executive producers: Lydia Dean Pilcher, Irrfan Khan, Ritesh Batra
Director of photography: Michael Simmonds
Production designer: Shruti Gupte
Music: Max Richter
Editor: John Lyons
PG rating, 104 minutes.