Monthly Must See: Ritesh Batra's 'The Lunchbox' Starring Irrfan Khan
by Alex Billington
August 4, 2014
Inspired by a tweet asking "if you could recommend one obscure film you think more people should watch", we're launching a new monthly column today. The tentative title is "Monthly Must See" (I didn't want to use "homework" anywhere in this but that's kind of the idea behind it) and every month I want to highlight one "obscure" or underseen film that I want everyone to take a moment to see. In fact, we'll give you one entire month to watch the film, and we'll choose a film that is readily available in theaters or VOD/DVD/BR already. Up first it's The Lunchbox, directed by Ritesh Batra, starring Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur.
I adore this film. I first saw The Lunchbox at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival and fell in love with it there. It's a film about love, about food, about humanity, about finding a connection in a lonely world. I also had the opportunity to meet director Ritesh Batra at Telluride, and he's a humble, down-to-earth guy and very talented filmmaker - this is only the start of his sure-to-be-illustrious career. As much as I've been praising the film, it never gained any traction with US audiences - perhaps because it's a very Indian film, set on the crowded streets of Mumbai, but that's another reason why I love it. The film captures Mumbai and all its vivid colors and activity in a stunning way that I've never really seen. It's a refreshing cinematic experience.
Why watch this film? What makes it so good?
In Mumbai, India, lunches are delivered to businessman every day by a complex system of "dabbawalas", who carry the sacks from the home where they were made across the city to each location. It works so well that Harvard Business Review did a study on it a few years back. But what would happen if one of those lunchboxes went to the wrong person? That's the foundation of the story in Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox, which focuses on a lonely man nearing retirement (played by the always-endearing Irrfan Khan) who receives delicious lunches from a lonely woman in a dead end marriage (played by the incredibly charming Nimrat Kaur - seen in her kitchen above). The two begin a lovely relationship writing notes to each other.
The film is excellent for so many different reasons, starting with the chemistry between Khan and Kaur, who never actually share a scene together in person. Instead, they communicate and grow together through the notes, and by reading them with voiceover, we get a chance to feel that elation when each new note arrives. However, Batra doesn't indulge and gives us just enough of the notes to feel like we know what's going on without prying too much into their personal lives. It's that subtle touch that allows this film to breathe, to build into a gorgeous story of love fueled by amazing food. You will want an entire Indian meal by the end.
While almost everyone knows Irrfan Khan already (thanks to Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi, The Amazing Spider-Man) it is lead actress Nimrat Kaur that I totally fell head-over-heels for. She is genuinely, vividly, remarkably beautiful and I enjoyed every last scene we get to spend with her. She brings a light touch, a very careful and subtle humanity to the film which helps elevate it to a level where adoration comes natural. It's also worth praising actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who plays Shaikh, a man who seems to be annoyance at the start but provides some impressive wisdom by the end, earning likability via his own unwrapping. All of these elements work together in what I call in my review "a delightful, heartwarming, smile-evoking film."
What are other critics saying about it?
Film critic Mary Houlihan from the Chicago Sun-Times praises it, saying: "The Lunchbox, Indian director Ritesh Batra’s debut, is a witty and perceptive film that reveals the hopes, sorrows and regrets of ordinary people. Batra, also the film’s screenwriter, has created a touching and credible story that easily draws the viewer into the lives of its characters."
Our friend Kevin Jagernauth from The Playlist wrote at TIFF 2013: "This isn't a man necessarily going through a transformation, but a late lesson in life, and Khan plays each little change and development with small gestures and little choices that add up to a complex character. And Kaur's work as Ila is very good as well, even as she spends much of the picture by herself, speaking to her unseen Auntie and reacting to the notes she receives in return from Saajan, still finding fresh notes each time. Meanwhile, behind the camera, Batra's decisions, which sees him use space and parallel imagery to visually transmit how Saajan and Ila open up during the course of the story, are wise and so deftly employed you may not even notice."
Film critic Ty Burr for the Boston Globe in his review: "The Lunchbox isn’t an example of bravura moviemaking or cutting-edge style but simply a tale told with intelligence, restraint, and respect. It has its predictabilities — does Saajan have to be a Scrooge to the ball-playing kids in his neighborhood? — as well as its surprises. The secondary character of Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a young man waiting in line for the hero’s job, subtly transforms from an over-eager pill to a trusted confidant and friend, just one example of the film’s quiet breadth of vision… In its small, satisfying way, this is a revolutionary film. It just understands that some revolutions begin with lunch."
Film critic Kenneth Turan for the LA Times in his review: "One thing that makes Lunchbox so strong is that a touch of melancholy hangs over its sweetness. Finally this is a film about the wheel of life, about what helps us cope with its turns and find our way in its unforgiving labyrinth… Lunchbox is not so much about our passion for food as it is about our hunger for human connection, even if the thought of it makes us nervous and uncertain. Something real hangs in the balance between Saajan and Ila, and this film has the grace to find a similar balance, neither pushing too hard nor pulling back too far. It's quite a feat for a first-time director and one that offers promise for the future as well as satisfaction in the here and now."
From user "visheshvijay" commenting on the IMDb boards: "In an age when instant messaging, email, and various social media have made communication easier and quicker, debutant writer-director Ritesh Batra relies on scribbled notes tucked in tiffin boxes to deliver a charming, old-fashioned love story in The Lunchbox. There's a simple line in this sumptuous film that captures its essence beautifully: 'Sometimes even the wrong train can take you to the right destination.' It's a line that might help interpret the film's open ending, but one that also nicely sums up its unique premise."
What should viewers look for to discuss about it?
Two aspects really stand out: the ending, which is very important after all the interaction between the two. And the way the lunchbox works as a catalyst for honesty. While we, as the audience, get to watch both of these people on screen reading the notes, in their reality they don't know anything about the other person. They don't even know what they look like, which is one of the keys to this story because it allows them to open up and speak honestly to each other. They say what they wouldn't ever say to anyone else. And that's what leads to the conclusion, and he plays with ambiguity a little bit, but I think in our hearts we all know where he's going and what's happening. At least that's what I felt like he was trying to say with that ending.
Maybe that's the point - that in life the greatest decisions come right from what your heart tells you, not what someone else shows/tells you is the "right" path to take. That may end up leading you down a path you never would've thought to take (or never really wanted to take before). But it's those little moments, that irrefutable spark, those notes, they are hints at a much deeper, much more meaningful connection between two people and it's so wonderful to see that captured beautifully in a film like this. I will be revisiting The Lunchbox often for inspiration on love, on cooking, on good food, and on making the right decisions in life.
Monthly Must See: We follow up with this discussion next month and highlight another great underseen film to watch. Thank you for reading and we hope you enjoy The Lunchbox. If you do, tell others about it.