In Ritesh Batra’s beguiling romance “The Lunchbox,” a virtual relationship blossoms not through a sexy operating system as in “Her,” or e-mail as in “You’ve Got Mail,” but the old-fashioned way, through carefully written notes delivered by hand every day.
The conceit isn’t nearly as archaic as it sounds. In Mumbai, where this touching story takes place, millions of people still get their noontime lunches courtesy of “dabbawallahs,” deliverymen who shuttle stacked metal cans from home to office and back again using an elaborate, color-coded system. The technique is so foolproof that it was even studied by Harvard Business School.
What university researchers discovered was that the odds of a wrongful delivery are something like a million to one. That tantalizing blip was all Batra needed to construct a love story with all the charm of 1940’s “Shop Around the Corner” and all the contemporary resonance of “Slumdog Millionaire.” Even more commendably, the filmmaker — here making a bracingly assured debut — stays true to his characters throughout the story, which, despite its classic contours, still manages to hold one or two genuine surprises.
Newcomer Nimrat Kaur plays Ila, a young homemaker whose attempts at creating delicious lunches go chronically unnoticed by her workaholic husband. (Among the film’s many charms are the scenes of her cooking; you can almost smell the delectable spices wafting up from her pot.)
When one of her meals accidentally goes to a middle manager named Saajan (Irrfan Khan), the two strike up a tentative correspondence. Khan is by now familiar to American viewers from HBO’s “In Treatment” and last year’s “Life of Pi.” He’s an actor whose doleful expression and sensitive demeanor win almost instant identification from the audience. Together with Kaur — a theater actress who has a promising future in front of the camera — Khan fully and sympathetically inhabits what could have been simply a gimmicky conceit.
Even though much of “The Lunchbox” transpires in Ila’s kitchen (where she conducts another virtual relationship, with her “auntie” upstairs, by way of yelling through the window) and in Saajan’s office, Batra nonetheless plunges the audience into the riotous city life of Mumbai, where we follow Saajan onto crowded buses and streets to his lonely apartment and where Ila barely ventures forth. What begins as a nagging sense of dissatisfaction eventually reveals the deeper, sorrowful reality of a woman’s life in India, as Ila’s hopes for her future became increasingly thwarted and constrained.
“The Lunchbox” probably shouldn’t be called a romantic comedy — there’s too much regret and longing at the core of its protagonists to qualify for that — but it does have comic elements, including Ila’s confiding conversations with her upstairs neighbor and an eager young colleague of Saajan’s, played by an effervescent Nawazuddin Siddiqui. His character, Shaikh, is a survivor of Mumbai’s streets, here depicted as teeming with life and color, even as the inhabitants live in crushing loneliness. Through a simple, even fanciful story, Batra communicates the essence of that dichotomy, leaving the audience with a fragile sense of hope in the midst of otherwise dizzying indifference.
★ ★ ★
PG. At area theaters. Contains thematic material and smoking. In English and Hindi with subtitles. 104 minutes.