The Lunchbox (2013)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Romantic Drama  |   Release Date - May 19, 2013 (USA - Unknown), Feb 28, 2014 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 105 min.  |   Countries - Canada, Germany, France, India, United States  |   MPAA Rating - PG
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Review by Perry Seibert

In the age of social media, building a story around pen pals who fall in love while exchanging actual physical notes would seem to be an impossibility. However, writer/director Ritesh Batra has pulled it off with his charming and poignant film The Lunchbox.

Throughout the city of Mumbai, bike messengers deliver lunchboxes to specific workers. One such customer is Saajan (Irrfan Khan), an accountant who's on the verge of retirement. He's a pencil pusher at a large office, and has an arrangement that a local restaurant will make lunch for him every day. However, one afternoon he is given the wrong shipment and instead gets a meal that was actually prepared by Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a housewife who intended the food for her husband.

When the dishes are returned licked clean, Ila believes she successfully pleased her emotionally distant spouse, but a few quick questions that night make it clear that he never got the food. When the lunchbox is again returned completely empty, Ila includes a note the third day to find out who has been enjoying her cooking.

Saajan, who seems unable to communicate with anyone, responds by including a note in the dirty dishes. The pair soon open up to each other -- he's still mourning his deceased wife, while she suspects her marriage is unsalvageable -- and consider the possibility that they should meet in person.

While The Lunchbox values the written word in a way that few movies do -- many key scenes play out as we watch the two protagonists read the notes -- the film understands and cares about its characters too much to ever become dull. Ila has a very funny relationship with an unseen neighbor, who provides the young wife with advice about cooking and life; meanwhile, the reserved Saajan must contend with his overly eager replacement at work, whom he has been instructed to train. These two people have full lives even before they begin to interact, and the pleasure of the movie lies in seeing how each has a profound effect on the other.

Irrfan Khan conveys a sense of stoicism that shifts from off-putting to melancholic as Saajan's story is revealed; his soulful, hangdog countenance reveals a great deal through very subtle changes. He's ideally cast here and acts as the perfect counterpoint to Kaur, who gives Ila an ever-present life force. Her character feels deeply all the time, whereas her possible soul mate has constructed his life so that he doesn't have to feel much of anything.

Ritesh Batra has pulled off something very special with The Lunchbox: an old-fashioned romantic drama set in our modern world that doesn't feel reactionary or calculated. The characters' method of communication may be archaic, but their problems are universal and their personalities are idiosyncratic.