Comfort food – ★★★★
I say Indian cinema, you say Bollywood! Right? Well with his new film The Lunchbox Ritesh Batra has proven that his country’s native film industry is capable of creating a lot more than big, sweeping song and dance showcases.
The film tells the story of Saajan (played by Irrfan Khan who you should recognise from Life of Pi and The Amazing Spider-Man), a widower working in a Mumbai government claims department approaching retirement. He receives a surprise one day when he receives a rather special lunch delivered to his desk. Lunch deliveries like this are the norm in India but we as an audience are let in on the secret that it was never meant to arrive with Saajan – it was a mixup, coming not from his local deli but instead from a woman trying to impress her husband. That woman is Ila, played with a combination of elegance and longing by Nimrat Kaur. As Mumbai’s “dabbawalas” (or lunchbox delivery men) continue to deliver to the wrong office, Saajan and Ila embrace the mixup and begin to exchange letters, revealing more about themselves in these secret writings than they do to the people closest to them. The only other character of any significance is Shaikh, Saajan’s replacement in his office as played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
What becomes clear quite early on is that this is an incredibly sweet and well-intentioned romantic film. If this is up your street and you’re willing to be swept up in a good story then it’s definitely worth your while sitting it, but if you’re the overly cynical type it’s probably best you stay at home. If you’re being dragged to the cinema against your will by a significant other, you may need to bring a sick-bag for a few particularly sugary moments.
Khan has won a host of accolades for his performance here and it’s deserving of major kudos. Because it’s a epistolary (thanks wikipedia!) story, there’s a lot of “acting” to be done while reading a letter over lunch. It’s a credit to the editing as well as the acting that this back and forth never gets tired and is continuously engaging. Khan plays a cranky, lonely man who doesn’t give much of himself to his colleagues, instead looking ahead to a quiet and solitary retirement. Shaikh’s character brings him out of his shell a little and the growth in their relationship is almost as rewarding as the central romance.
Ila is an incredibly one-dimensional woman who believes the solution to a failing marriage is another child and better cooking. But this is Indian society where family systems and the role of the woman in the home is very different to western cultures so, and I’ll whisper this, it’s actually incredibly easy to just accept things exactly as they’re presented to us here.
Special mention to the never-seen auntie who lives above Ila and drops down her basket of food to her kitchen window every day and shouts out relationship advice. It’s the kind of ludicrous thing that would be deemed too daft to be kept in any modern American comedy but it makes for plenty of laughs here.
A final word for the dabbawalas and their network of bicycles and vertical multi-compartmented lunchboxes. These uniformed men are fascinating and worthy of their own documentary – or a bit of a youtube binge.
This is all incredibly simple cinema reminiscent of a very different era of film-making. It’s not going to re-define any movie rulebook but if you’re looking for a gentle, sweet, unlikely love story then you’ve got your picture.
Released in selected cinemas on April 9th 2014
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