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Movie Curiosities: The Lunchbox

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And with this pen, I thee wed, from my heart to your distress. --"Handwritten" by The Gaslight Anthem

Here's one that's been sitting on my to-do list for quite some time. The trailer gave me a distinctly mixed vibe, like there was only a 50/50 chance of the movie being sweet and pleasant instead of rote and forgettable. Yet it came to the Fox Tower and never seemed to leave.

So many other films have come and gone, yet this one is still playing on heavy rotation. This intrigued me, but it still kept getting put off for various reasons. Finally, a colleague of mine actually saw the film and immediately started hounding me to give it a try. Plus, A Million Ways to Die in the West has been getting such awful reviews that I don't dare touch it, so let's take a gander at The Lunchbox.

The premise is centered around the world-famous dabbawalla network in Mumbai. The network is comprised of couriers who travel by train and bicycle to deliver lunchboxes back and forth between restaurants and office workers. Alternatively, the workers' spouses could make hot lunches that would be delivered by way of dabbawalla. This way, the more dietary and hygiene-minded workers won't have to subsist entirely on the rare banana or apple bought downtown.

The system is notoriously efficient, hailed by everyone from Harvard professors to British royalty. The dabbawallahs have somehow perfected their methods to such a degree that mistakes are virtually impossible. Yet this film concerns a mistake so improbable that it doesn't just happen once, but every day for a solid month.

Our female lead is Ila, played by Nimrat Kaur. She's a young housewife with a daughter and a loveless marriage. Her husband is hardly ever at home, and he barely ever looks at her when he is home. Yet she continues to put her heart and soul into making wonderful hot lunches that she delivers by dabbawalla, in the hopes that he'll show some kind of gratitude. Until one day, when her delivery gets waylaid.

Her lunchbox is instead delivered to Saajan Fernandes, a claims worker who's spent the past 35 years working a soulless government desk job. He's played by exec producer Irrfan Khan, a highly accomplished character actor who should look familiar to audiences on both sides of the Pacific. Saajan is retiring at the end of the month, and he's not exactly happy about it. In fact, he doesn't seem very happy at all. Between the death of his wife and his advancing age, Saajan is feeling lonely, useless, and bitter all around.

Now, think about what we've got here. On one end is a woman made lonely by a broken marriage, and on the other end is a man made lonely by his own misfortune and stubbornness. In both cases, these are people who desperately need some kind of personal connection. Saajan and Ila are living in a city of 18 million, so overpopulated that people are crammed together like packing peanuts, yet they still feel isolated.

So Ila keeps sending her box lunches along because this total stranger actually likes her cooking and it's not like her husband notices the difference. And Saajan sends a note back with the lunchbox to express his gratitude and offer feedback. And so this wayward lunchbox carries handwritten messages between two kindred spirits, as the two of them share their common problems and worries that they can't admit to anyone else.

Communication and interpersonal connections are obviously huge parts of the story, but aging is another prominent theme as well. In addition to Saajan's own problems with getting old, Ila has some elderly relatives who are either dead or dying. Put together, the film seems focused on the idea that life is too short to be alone or stuck in a bad relationship.

What makes the film even better is that it doesn't fall into any of the saccharine or cliched traps common to so many romance pictures. It certainly helps that all throughout the movie, there's always the constant question of whether these two will meet, or even if they should. Hell, those questions are still left open even after the credits have rolled. Yes, this is one of those films that ends on an ambiguous note, but the film can get away with that because the characters are so well-crafted and their development works superbly even with the incomplete ending.

I regret to say that the pacing is slow and there are times when the film seems to drag its feet getting to the next relevant plot point, but this feels deliberate. It has the upside of letting the characters and their relationships grow naturally, which means that the characters and their story (despite the gaping plot hole at its center) feel more authentic. The slow pacing may be a dealbreaker for some, but personally, if a slower-paced story means that I get to spend more time with well-rounded and likeable characters, that's a trade I will gladly make.

It should go without saying that everything in this movie revolves around the two leads, but there are a few other characters as well. A highlight is Ila's Auntie (Bharati Achrekar) who provides sage wisdom with a side of snarky comic relief from the flat upstairs. Auntie herself never actually appears in the film as anything but a shrill disembodied voice, and it works surprisingly well in practice. There's also Shaik (Nawazuddin Siddiqui *whew*), the up-and-comer who's next in line for Saajan's job. He works nicely as a humorous character while doubling as a way to show that Saajan is gradually softening toward other people. Shaik also helps advance the concept of finding friendship in unlikely places, so there's that as well.

Still, though praise is due to all members of the cast, the real star here is writer/director Ritesh Batra, who makes a jaw-dropping debut with this picture. Leaving aside the aforementioned strengths of the script, Batra shows a deft touch at knowing exactly what to bring out and what to underplay. As an example, there's a time when Saajan is running a finger across his chin and finds a spot where he missed shaving. The visuals would never have caught that little detail bugging him, but the sound design makes it loud and clear to us.

Another example comes early on, when we hear that a woman jumped off a tower with her daughter. The moment is nicely underplayed, focusing on Saajan's reaction to the tragedy. Even at this early stage, we can see from Saajan's newfound empathy that his correspondence with Ila is already having a positive effect on him. Perhaps more importantly, Batra was smart enough to focus on Saajan's uncertainty instead of asking us to share it. We know full well that Ila and her daughter are fine, and we do indeed learn that they are unharmed. Yet the suicide still connects Saajan and Ila in a way that I don't dare spoil here. The whole movie is loaded with these little moments that are presented in a nonchalant manner at first, only to come back with a heartbreaking vengeance shortly after.

A few broad moments of humor aside, The Lunchbox is a very sweet little movie about authentic characters that feel instantly sympathetic. It's a neatly poignant film about interpersonal connections in an impersonal place and time, delivered with only trace amounts of saccharine. Though the premise is highly improbable by its own admission, it's still nicely creative and superbly directed. This one is absolutely worth tracking down.

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