Mumbai's dabbawalas—lunchbox deliverymen that pick up lunch tiffins at homes and deliver them to offices on a citywide scale—are so ubiquitous, and so efficient, as to be iconic; in 2011, Forbes rated them a Six Sigma operation, noting an error of approximately one in every 16 million orders. The white-hatted deliverymen who make this system run are a phenomenon that director Ritesh Batra initially hoped to capture in a documentary, however, the mystery of that 16-millionth order proved too heady a prospect to resist, and instead, he made The Lunchbox. In this light-touch romantic drama, that rare error brings a lunch made by lonely housewife Ila to the desk of even lonelier office worker Saajan. Though the film treats this accidental culinary intercession as the nearly-fantastic coincidence it is, the love story that follows is subtle, poignant and ultimately deeply charming.
Charming is, of course, a loaded word to use when discussing movies, particularly about films that are coming from outside the major U.S./UK studio system. There's the sense that foreign films designed to have crossover appeal in our major markets—which The Lunchbox almost certainly is—are acting as primers or ambassadors of culture, so to say a film is "charming" might mean only that it's palatable, free of anything too dreadful; it might be offered as praise for a glimpse of local color as the camera follows the dabbawalas about their daily work. But here, thankfully, "charming" does what it says on the tin: presents characters delicately rendered, in situations quietly wrenching, and then lets you hope for them as much as they're hoping for each other.
In neglected housewife Ila, Nimrat Kaur offers a pitch-perfect take on quiet desperation. At a loss but not yet hopeless, she attempts to catch her husband's attention with halting advances far more awkward than the notes she writes to a stranger. It could be more surprising how early she offers up her fears—certainly she's quicker to confide in Saajan than he is in her—but she's as sharply observant as she is restless to be open with someone. Her never-seen upstairs Auntie offers company with just a call out the kitchen window, but we're privy to lingering close-ups that reveal haunting expressions of just what Ila is choosing not to say. Besides a vanishing husband, her life is heavy with sorrow in her ailing father and a lost brother, and in a daughter whose make-believe is inching toward the macabre. These concerns firmly ground what could feel like a high-concept epistolary love affair, as her notes are heartbreaking more often than they are sentimental. When she writes to Saajan, "What do we live for?" there's no declaration of love in it; it's a need for comfort that runs deeper than romance. She's in love with the honesty of writing the notes as much as she is with the man on the other side of them.
As that man, Irrfan Khan brings a calm brittleness to Saajan. A widower on the verge of retirement after decades of service to his company, he surprises no one so much as himself with the depth of his reaction to Ila. Of course, we know before he does—his loneliness is visible in the off-center frames that are crying out for a partner, and in the seemingly cavernous space on either side of his seat in a bustling cafeteria, for which different camera POVs offer us his solitude at every angle. And though his notes seem at first to be more reserved than Ila's (and certainly more initially prickly), the evenings of Saajan standing alone on his porch, smoking and looking at nothing much, sketch a portrait of a man shocked by the scope of his unexamined life. And refreshingly, within this correspondence, Saajan is waking to more than the idea of new love—his love is a cause, not the sole reason, for his opening up. His reluctant mentorship of Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), his seemingly-smarmy replacement who's determined to make friends, carries a similar narrative weight in his life. The moments when Saajan pushes part of his lunch across the table to Shaikh say as much as his love letters.
Perhaps not surprising in a movie so centered on a meal, food is as active a character in The Lunchbox as either of its leads. In some ways, it's a more active participant in the conversation than either of them. It's certainly an easier common ground; the mentions of beloved foods or family recipes in the notes they send often suggest deeper nostalgia, but so much goes unsaid that sometimes the food is a more direct means of communication. But though a few of the meals become an inevitable (and evocative) labor of love, the lunches are put to more varied use in negotiating their surreal developing friendship, and are occasionally delightfully pointed. One of their early communiques involves his critique of her salty food and her return soup, so laced with peppers he can barely eat it. It's one of several beats that balance the tension accompanying a love affair for which the chance of happiness is so slim. The comedy occasionally skews slapstick; Shaikh cutting vegetables inside his briefcase feels out of place when set against Auntie's windowsill delivery basket being expressively shaken for emphasis during a piece of advice. But those moments are far enough in between that they vanish into the more naturalistic and compelling world around them.
At its heart, The Lunchbox is a study of two people looking for the courage to move forward against life's inertia, a romance of anonymity walking hand-in-hand with the desire to be known. It's a story of the power of hope for its own sake, and a quiet gem of a movie.