In Mumbai's famously efficient lunchbox delivery system, a meal made by an unhappy young housewife (Nimrat Kaur) mistakenly lands in the hands of a widower (Irrfan Khan). After realising the mix up, the strangers begin to communicate through a series of letters, revealing a little more of themselves each time.

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Rightly lauded as a well-told romance.

In Mumbai, the dabbawala is a person who ferries prepared lunches from restaurants or private homes to men toiling in white collar office jobs. The network is intricate and voluminous, requiring trays of boxed lunches to be carried on crowded buses and trains, as well as bicycles and pushcarts by a virtual army of such dabbawalas. The success rate is so efficient that universities and governments have sent observers to study the phenomenon.

This is the backdrop against which first-time feature writer-director Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox unfolds. And the response has been overwhelmingly positive: the film has screened at dozens of festivals (including, most recently, Sydney), won numerous awards and performed exceptionally well in arthouse release in its own country. What audiences are responding to, whether they realise it or not, is a combination of narrative calculation and emotional honesty that results in an unorthodox yet completely relatable love story conducted entirely through letters and food.

Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is an attractive young wife and mother whose husband Rajiv (Nakul Vaid) completely ignores her and may, in fact, be conducting an affair. On the shouted advice of upstairs neighbour Auntie Deshpande (Bharati Achrekar, heard but never seen), Ila prepares an especially tasty lunch for her spouse and packs it in a cylindrical, faded Kelly green canvas carry bag.

Remarkably, considering the efficiency of the dabbawala system, the lunch is mistakenly delivered to Saajan Fernandes (veteran Irrfan Khan, from Life of Pi), a morose and standoffish widower accountant in a claims department about to retire after 35 years of skilled but apparently invisible service.

When it becomes obvious Ila’s husband would be completely unappreciative even if he did receive the lunch, she encloses a note thanking Saajan for eating the entire meal.

Thus begins a series of increasingly confessional letters back and forth between the strangers, underscoring their suppressed yearnings as well as the impersonal nature of Mumbai’s throng of humanity represented by the jam-packed trains on which Saajan commutes to and from his job. Ilya, on the other hand, hardly ever leaves their cramped apartment. It’s the sorrow of a disappearing past confronting the fear of an uncertain future.

As time goes on, Saajan opens up to Shaikh, the gregarious young man set to replace him (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). This new relationship, in turn, emboldens him to reveal even more of his feelings to Ila. Their parallel tracks seem about to intersect, but there’s more to the story.

Batra’s astute screenplay builds its case slowly and methodically, playing the drudgery of Ila’s solitary housework against the isolating silence of Saajan’s large group office space. Their loneliness is underscored by Auntie’s absence from Ila’s apartment, as well as the seemingly happy family across the alley from Saajan’s silent apartment.

Working in complete synchronisation with cinematographer Michael Simmonds, Batra blocks out these spaces as emotional metaphors without drawing special attention to them. The performances are universally fine, with Khan ibuing Saajan exhibiting an increasingly sly sense of humour as their unique relationship blossoms.

“The wrong train can take you to the right station” is a bit of shared wisdom repeated numerous times in the course of The Lunchbox. Judging from this confident and satisfying feature film debut, Ritesh Batra is on the right track.

Watch 'The Lunchbox' 

Sunday 5 July, 12:30pm on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)
Monday 6 July, 3:20pm on SBS World Movies
Tuesday 7 July, 6:20am on SBS World Movies

PG
France, Germany, India, 2013
Genre: Drama, Romance
Language: English, Hindi
Director: Ritesh Batra
Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Irrfan Khan
What's it about?
In Mumbai's famously efficient lunchbox delivery system, a meal made by an unhappy young housewife (Nimrat Kaur) mistakenly lands in the hands of a widower (Irrfan Khan). After realising the mix up, the strangers begin to communicate through a series of letters, revealing a little more of themselves each time.

Irrfan Khan opens up about The Lunchbox, love letters and his favourite foods (interview)
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Important information about SBS digital channels 31 and 32.

 

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Details

PG
1 hour 44 min
In Cinemas 19 September 2013,

Genres