Feeding the heart

An unconventional and moving love story from India

The Lunchbox
Starring Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan. Directed by Ritesh Batra. Pageant Theatre. Rated PG.
Rated 4.0

The Lunchbox, a charming little character drama from India, is a low-key love story in which small passions and pleasures enliven the otherwise discouraging circumstances of its characters. And the movie itself, the feature-film debut of writer-director Ritesh Batra, offers a kind of haven of alert sensitivity and calm amid the crowded anonymity and hurly burly of daily life in modern-day Mumbai.

The principle characters include Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a rather dour widower who is on the verge of retirement after 35 years in a large firm’s claims department, and Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young mother and unhappy housewife who prepares boxed lunches for the city’s noontime delivery system. Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the eager-beaver new hire for Sajaan’s position, also figures crucially in the story, as do Ila’s neglectful husband, Rajeev (Nakul Vaid), and her unseen but much-consulted upstairs neighbor “Auntie” (Bharati Achrekar).

But the heart of the story has to do with Saajan and Ila and the eponymous lunchbox.

Ila prepares a lunch meant for her husband, and includes a personal note. The lunch is delivered to Saajan by mistake; he appreciates it, reads the note, and sends one of his own back with the empty containers. Gradually, an increasingly personal correspondence develops between the two of them—all by way of lunch-time notes, until the possibility of meeting face-to-face seems irresistible to both.

Batra’s film is impressive (and unexpectedly moving) in the ways it remains calmly sympathetic with at least the potential for a May-September romance in all this, while also presenting a sensitive and nuanced picture of the characters’ lives and their social circumstances. Saajan and Ila (and Shaikh as well) are not stuck in dire poverty, for example, but the slender comforts of their marginally middle-class lives can seem confining all the same. And while Saajan and Ila are nearly always in the foreground here, Batra persists in linking them to the backgrounds, social and otherwise, of their respective stories.

Consequently, as the story of Saajan and Ila goes its gentle, heartfelt way, The Lunchbox muses on a variety of contextually relevant topics—the intimate pleasures of eating, of reading, of open conversation, of handwritten messages; the soul-quashing uniformity of overcrowded cities; the regimented drudgery of desk jobs in massive corporations; the rhythms and machinery of mutual indifference; the power of romance, and its limits.

Khan (Life of Pi, The Namesake, Slumdog Millionaire) is superb both as the grieving and mildly misanthropic widower and as the aging gent wrestling with mixed emotions as the possibilities of a fresh chapter in his life present themselves. Kaur/Ila and Siddiqui/Shaikh put bright, plaintive faces on a future that they’ve already begun to understand as deeply problematical.