‘The Lunchbox’ is a light but thoughtful surprise

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Ritesh Batra’s “The Lunchbox” toys with Hollywood conventions to the point of frustration. His debut feature, in which unfulfilled housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) finds herself in a blossoming pen-pal relationship with retiring company man Saajan (Irrfan Khan), continuously reignites the opportunity for his protagonists to meet, only for something to get in the way. The convention is typical – think the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle “You’ve Got Mail” – but its execution is markedly different: “The Lunchbox” is either a pretty terrible romantic comedy, or an unexpectedly wonderful slice-of-life.

Set in Mumbai, Batra’s main contemplation is how to connect two voiceless people in a city of millions. He cleverly identifies the city’s infamous lunchbox service – its international reputation is milked for the film’s best laughs – and its potential for error as a way to drive together his protagonists. Ila puts most of her morning into her husband’s lunch of the day, but his lunchbox is mixed up with one of a nearby restaurant delivering to the widowed Saajan. From there, the two exchange letters that begin as exceedingly blunt, but gradually evolve.

Rather than drawing up an elaborate plot for a “You’ve Got Mail”- type romance, Batra uses these letters to get into the heads, the lives and the hopes and fears of two people that are utterly unfulfilled. Ila’s husband does not pay her a shred of attention, and her life is spent cooking for a man who she has never even met. Her future is staring at her in the face; both her aunt and mother are caring for their ailing husbands, miserable men who treated them without love or respect for their entire marriages.

Saajan, meanwhile, is preparing to retire from the claims department of a government agency. He goes home, smokes, reads, watches television – there’s nothing left to look forward to for this man. His replacement, an overeager younger man whose friendliness only turns Saajan off further, juxtaposes the hopeful with the hopeless.

Th ere are moments when “The Lunchbox” is startlingly profound. The attempted suicide of a neglected housewife and her young daughter stings Ila to the core. Through a letter to Saajan, she attempts to dive into that woman’s headspace and does so with unsettling ease and sadness. She asks, at the end of this particular letter, “What do we live for?” Saajan, in his response, does not address the question.

The question lingers over the entire film. Both spend their days looking forward to the moment when they scrimmage through the lunch tins, searching for the one containing a new letter. These are two people who really have nobody, whose thoughts and voices are silenced, who find great happiness in being able to simply express who they are and where they are in the world.

Batra brings great specificity to this film. He has a colorful eye, a style not overbearing or particularly singular but effectively complimentary, and he captures Mumbai beautifully. From the overcrowded trains to the bustling streets to the lifeless indoor spaces, he is either squeezing people into a frame or surrounding his protagonists with empty space. In either setting, Batra conveys penetrating loneliness.

Khan has played a version of this character before; in HBO’s “In Treatment,” he was sensational as a widower forced to live out of his home in India, and in New York with his son. In “The Lunchbox,” Khan’s Saajan is in his environment. He is home, surrounded by his people and stuck with his wife’s old videotapes. Yet he exudes a similar foreignness, a melancholy meditation on aging and inescapable loneliness. It’s beautiful, subtle work.

Best about Khan’s performance is how effectively it meshes with Batra’s vision. This is very much a fi lm about Mumbai culture – the way men treat women, the way aging brings about isolation no matter how many people are in your orbit – and is all the better for it. Through the prism of Mumbai lifestyles, it asks a crucial question: is there a point to dreaming?

Where “The Lunchbox” is not as effective, perhaps, is in trying to stay conventional and light. Its themes are dark, its characters rather miserable, and yet the fi lm refuses to really dig into the bleakness that its ideas suggest. Batra leaves you with a thoughtful exploration of aging and loneliness, but he does not take that final step in really finishing up on it.

The will-they-or-won’t-they-meet tension certainly plays nicely into Saajan’s fear of connecting with someone younger and of dreaming when he feels he has no right to – but in the film’s final third, it takes up too much time. It ends predictably ambiguously, leaving the audience with a shimmer of hope that these two individuals will find what they are looking for, even as they live in circumstances where that is probably, sadly, impossible.

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