The last place one might expect to find smatterings of the Lubitsch touch would be in this debut film from Indian writer/director Ritesh Batra. Yet if you close your eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of modern Mumbai while The Lunchbox unfolds, you might imagine yourself in Manhattan during another era, watching as James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan exchange notes in that Shop Around the Corner.
Ila (Kaur) is trying to spark the interest of her indifferent husband by preparing special lunch dishes for him to eat while at work. But due to the mistaken delivery of her lunchbox to dour, about-to-retire Saajan (Khan), a correspondence between the two begins, via notes exchanged in the lunchbox. (An entire film could be made about the elaborate lunch-delivery system in Mumbai, whereby the deliverymen [called dabbawallahs] collect the homemade, hot lunches from wives’ kitchens each morning and deliver them to their husbands’ workplaces, and then pick them up and return them back to the wives later in the afternoon. It’s a historic and complex system that prides itself on the scarcity of mistakes – so much so that the system has been studied by management experts at Harvard University and elsewhere.)
The Lunchbox is the kind of off-Bollywood movie we get to see so rarely in the States. Unlike Bollywood’s masala movies which contain liberal amounts of singing, dancing, action, romance, and comedy, The Lunchbox is an engaging portrait of two lonely people, who share intimacies in their notes that they express to no one else. Much is conveyed through subtle observations, without the need to stage a whole song-and-dance around each discovery. Their actions are brave yet tentative, humorous and self-aware. The recipient of many awards and popular on the film-festival circuit, The Lunchbox offers us a naturalistic glimpse of middle-class life in modern Mumbai.