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The Lunchbox: Beautifully performed ‘will they, won’t they’ Mumbai-based heart-warmer

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A JADED accountant and an unhappy housewife form an unlikely relationship in this enchanting, but surprising film


Director: Ritesh Batra

Stars: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddique

PG, 104mins

How to savour the oldest pleasures of life – love, friendship, food – in a hectic and alienating modern world?

That’s the question posed by The Lunchbox, a delightful and beautifully performed heart-warmer which finds two lonely people in one of the world’s busiest cities, Mumbai, make the most unexpected of connections.

They are withdrawn accountant Saajan (the wonderful Irrfan Khan), a defeated soul on the cusp of retirement, and pretty housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) who yearns for the attention of her cold, distracted husband.

In a world of social media and internet dating the pair come into contact via a charmingly antiquated Mumbai tradition: lunchbox deliveries.

Every day delivery men called Dabbawallahs collect hot lunches prepared by housewives and navigate the chaotic city streets to deposit them on the desks of grateful husbands, a practise stretching back 120 years.

A mix up results in Saajan savouring the exquisite cuisine of Ila who has spiced up her cooking in a bid to excite her neglectful husband.

Realizing her mistake she includes a note in the next delivery and thus begins a written exchange of pleasantries, observations and, eventually, intimacies; their communication capturing all the excitement and anticipation of a more innocent era.

Debut writer-director Ritesh Batra has crafted a hugely assured and affecting tale about the aches and pains of two ordinary people reawakening to the joys of existence, the sort that don’t come with a price tag: sharing, laughing, eating.

The modern world is suffocating, literally for Saajan who endures a hellish daily commute, but the pair begin to breathe and blossom while remaining, essentially, figments of the other’s imagination (they are in no hurry to meet face-to-face).

The subtle Khan (so good in Slumdog Millionaire) is a pleasure to observe as Saajan warms up, ever so gradually, a transformation measured in his relationship with ebullient apprentice Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an orphan with an infectious dream-big philosophy.

Shaikh’s a delightful character, resourceful and indefatigable, and the perfect comic foil to the straight-laced protagonists; the spicy chilli in the mix.

As Ila, Kaur has a warmth, good humour and dignity that makes you root for her happiness. “What do we live for?” she asks at one point, bemoaning her husband’s attachment to his mobile phone.

These aren’t Hollywood types but real, relatable people with modest hopes and expectations and proper sadness in their lives; there is suicide, death and disease which make the small pleasures seem that much more valuable and hard won.

The setting may be exotic but it’s a world that’s thoroughly recognisable, especially for inhabitants of any modern city. “There are too many people and everyone wants what the other has” observes Saajan who manages to be glum and weary yet never dull.

Director Batra avoids the vividly coloured, picture postcard version of Mumbai for a more immersive, sweatier and claustrophobic experience. Mumbai here is like any city, just bigger, busier and faster-changing, and with some fabulously quirky customs like the lunchbox deliveries.

That’s not to say fantasy can’t creep into this oppressive world; indeed neatly subverting traditional fairytale romances the story questions to what extent our protagonists are slipping the moorings of reality with their increasingly dreamy outpourings.

Will they get together? Should they get together? Will they even meet up? Batra keeps you guessing right to the end of this enchanting picture.


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