PLOT: A mistake in a world famous lunch delivery system unites a lonely worker named Saajan (Khan) and an unappreciated housewife named Ila (Kaur).
WHO'S IT FOR? Love for Indian food is not necessary.
Khan, who may be remembered as the adult version of Life of Pi's lead character, presents a man in The Lunchbox who is of a broken heart and an empty stomach. As time as has passed after a personal tragedy, he has become very vulnerable in age. Stubbornly stoic on the outside, he shows a soul that has given up and accepted life as a cycle.
The broken heart of Khan's character finds a nice match with the housewife played by Ila. She is knowingly constructed to be a stereotype, a mother and wife who is shown mostly in the kitchen, cooking. But a sweet performance from Kaur nicely enlivens this supposedly simple image.
Though the two win the movie's heart, a close scene-stealer is Siddiqui, who plays Shaikh, an employee working under Saajan. He is initially introduced as a teacher's pet, whom Saajan initially dismisses. And while the path of this character may not be the most surprising, Siddiqui leaves his mark with Shaikh's genuine spirit. A Cindy Lou Who to Saajan's Grinch, Siddiqui imbues The Lunchbox with an optimistic being who is too dear to pass on.
With its small concept, The Lunchbox can be pretty playful. Some characters exist entirely off-screen, like Ila's neighbor, who lives above in the apartment. Like Ila, she feels contained in the same place, and caring for her man. Adding onto the concept of cycles, the neighbor's husband stays inside and watches a ceiling fan spin all day.
Similarly, there is a finite tension in the film about the lunchbox scenario. There is a cute anxiety in how they communicate to each other, and trying to hold their respective grounds while writing to their secret admirers. Their correspondence is funny as well, continuing the charm of the finest movies about coupling.
While the film may be a case against cycles in life, its narrative has its own sense of slow repetition. There are moments where the circle of The Lunchbox really challenges natural desire to see a narrative progress forward. This is in spite of the slow advancements that are being made for the characters in Batra's script. With its point being made by the story, it doesn't have to be echoed by the film's editing, for a story that could be neater without losing any key ingredients.
The Lunchbox is a tale of serendipity, but it is (very strikingly) not a light romantic experience. As vibrant as the food may be in the film, The Lunchbox gets a definitive gravity from its darker passages. As cute as it may seem as well, playing into the adage of getting into a man's heart by his stomach, there is sadness within these isolated characters that Batra doesn't skim over. With this screenwriting choice, he grounds them, along with the stakes of this story. As romantic stories need their conflicts for couples to keep together, the stakes for these two food buddies feels to be of life-or-death. If they do not meet soon enough, they may evaporate into thin air.
With its inspired concept, there is a wonder to the process of dabbawalas (the lunch deliverers) that is carried over by how the film shows them at work. It's captivating to see the process presented, through a consistent mass amount of people, through numerous packed trains. A gluttonous amount of people shuffled from one place to other, it also highlights a line stated by Khan in the beginning, in which he resigns that he will be standing even when he is dead.
Batra's debut, a delight, is more than just a regular romance. With close-ups of food that you can smell and also taste, cramped urban surroundings you can feel and hear, and a wondrous efficient system you witness, it is a rare film experience for the five senses.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10