"The Lunchbox" is a sadly-sweet film about how two lives become entwined as the result of a mis-delivered lunch.
The story is set in Mumbai, where "dabbawallahs" or lunchbox men pick up meals from homes or restaurants and deliver them to workers at their desks for lunch.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a lonely young wife. Her husband works long hours, and, when home, lives in a fog of distraction that makes him oblivious to his beautiful spouse. Ila, under the direction of her "Auntie" (who lives upstairs and communicates by shouting from window to window), attempts to regain his attention by taking extra pains with his lunchbox.
Her plan goes awry when the lunchbox delivery system misfires, and her lunch ends up on the desk of a stranger.
Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is a government worker on the verge of retirement. He is also lonely, a widower who has no friends, and spends evenings smoking on his balcony, distantly watching the bright life of the family across the way. His workaday life is disrupted, first, when he finds the carry-out lunch he had ordered replaced by a delicious home-made meal, and second, when he is directed to train his eventual replacement.
The replacement, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is an ambitious but needy young man, "an orphan," and way too eager to please for Saajan's comfort. Saajan gives him the cold shoulder until Shaikh stands up for himself.
Ila figures out that the lunch was misdirected, and next day's box includes a note. He sends an initially terse reply, which eventually flowers into a correspondence that becomes increasingly more intimate.
Saajan, whose reluctant mentoring of Shaikh has dragged him back into the land of the living, is touched by Ila's letters as her life continues a downward spiral of loss and alienation. Finally, she asks to meet.
The story plays out after that with some surprising turns toward an ambiguous ending. Watching it is fascinating, and the story is beautifully and sensitively portrayed. Nimrat Kaur has far fewer films to her credit than the veteran Irrfan Khan, but her performance is an excellent match for his subtle and nuanced portrayal.
Fascinating also is the world of workaday Mumbai, with its crowded streets, crowded trains, and even crowded graveyards. Saajan remarks, wryly, but not joking, that after standing up on trains and busses all his life, he will be buried standing up. Saajan's government office is nothing like the shiny call centers seen in "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." He has a plain wooden desk in a rank of desks, not even a cubicle, and works on stacks of paper files with pen and pencil. The only electronic device he has is a common small calculator. As someone who does all his work on computer I would not have guessed it, but I can see that this is the difference between working for the government of a country where millions live in desperate poverty, and working for a well-funded tech company.
Most highly recommended.
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