Monday, September 29, 2014

The Lunchbox (2013) ****

In Mumbai, there is a lunchbox delivery service called the dabawallas. These men pick up hot lunches either from customers' homes or from restaurants, and deliver them to workers at lunchtime. Then they pick up the empties and haul them back home. It's a fascinating system that utilizes bicycles, trains, and men on foot. Many of the workers are illiterate, so a system of colors and codes is used on the boxes to get them where they belong. Mistakes are supposedly rare.

“The Lunchbox” is the story of one such mistake and how it changes two people's lives. The lovely Nimrat Kaur plays Ila, a lonely housewife who hopes to win back her husband's love by cooking him delicious lunches, which she sends to him at work via dabawalla. With advice from her upstairs neighbor, she prepares the most beautiful food I have seen on-screen since “Eat Drink Man Woman.” It's entirely possible these meals could cure her husband's wandering eye, but unfortunately he never gets to eat them. The dabawallas mistakenly deliver his lunches to Saajan (Irfan Khan), a dour, lonely widower in a government office. Saajan simply thinks that the restaurant that usually provides his meals has suddenly experienced a dramatic improvement in quality. On the other end, Ila quickly figures out the mistake when she gets no reaction from her husband regarding his lunch.

The obvious thing to do would be to tell her husband that a mistake was made and get things sorted out with the dabbawallas. For Ila, however, feeding her husband is an intensely intimate act, and she feels betrayed that he “ate someone else's food and didn't even notice.” Indeed, it feels like a corresponding act of infidelity when Ila continues to send lunches to Saajan, along with little notes. Saajan starts sending his own notes back in the empty lunchbox, and the two gradually get to know each other.

I'll tell you right now that there are no sex scenes in this film. No one gets shot or blown up either, and yet a great deal happens. Ila finds the courage to leave her loveless marriage, a very difficult act in a culture where un-married women are not valued. Saajan, meanwhile, finds himself at a crossroads, where he will either quietly fade into retirement and old age or find the energy to jump back into life.

“The Lunchbox” is incredibly rich in cultural detail, and it's fascinating to watch these people live out their personal crises amidst the throngs of Mumbai. Without hitting you over the head with it, the film makes you think about how, even in a city of millions, each individual is living his own story, and how easy it is to be lonely among the masses. Khan and Kaur provide understated performances of incredible depth, and the food is a performance all its own. The acting and the food combine with the sight, sounds, and practically the smells of Mumbai to make “The Lunchbox” a satisfying meal.

4 stars out of 5

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