A nostalgic throwback to the Satyajit Ray heyday of Indian arthouse – though admittedly lacking much of Ray’s sociopolitical spice – Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) blends teasing comic romance with a not-unrealistic portrait of modern Mumbai. Irrfan Khan warms the cockles as the retiring (in every sense of the word) office worker picking through the delight-laden lunchboxes that begin to arrive at his desk each day from a mystery cook. Its more vehement critics will predictably decry its middle-class leanings, but as the success of filmmakers like Joanna Hogg and Jon Sanders here in the UK has proven, there is an appetite for stories about pencil-pushers as well as poverty-stricken slumdogs.
Khan – a Bollywood megastar in his own country best-known to western audiences for his supporting turns in Oscar winners The Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire – plays lead character Saajan, a greying Mumbai office worker nearing mandatory retirement. One day, Saajan is delivered an unexpectedly delicious – if erroneous – lunch by a dabbawala (one of the city’s food couriers), concocted by housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and intended for her neglectful husband. After finding a note left in the metal lunchbox for her spouse, Saajan enters into correspondence with the increasingly frustrated Ila, quickly forming a bond with this complete stranger. However, when the time comes for the pair to finally meet face-to-face, Saajan begins to question the nature – and consequences – of his and Ila’s connection.
There’s a sugariness at the heart of Batra’s The Lunchbox that’s hard to resist, even if his directorial debut does on occasion become food porn first and a narrative drama second. As with Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2007 offering Couscous, the alluring appeal of all manner of exotic ingredients are used here to evoke feelings of comfort and security, with Ila and lonely widower Saajan two lost souls adrift upon the Mumbai metropolis, brought together by a shared love for life’s little pleasures. The latter, who’s toiled for so long in his humdrum job that any sense of flavour has been almost completely dulled, is at once snapped back to his senses by Ila’s culinary creativity, allowing himself to question what exactly it is he wants to achieve in his dwindling twilight years.
An amusing subplot involving Saajan’s incredibly earnest, seemingly omnipresent replacement desk jockey Shaikh (an impeccably timed, widely grinning Nawazuddin Siddiqui) sprinkles some welcome comic relief over proceedings, whilst also giving our prickly protagonist ample time to reflect back on both his myriad successes and occasional – though regretful – failures. A well-meaning, beautifully shot crowdpleaser that should appeal to both fervent world cinema fans and (significantly) the crucial ‘grey pound’ market, Batra’s The Lunchbox is difficult to dislike, but is also slightly too insubstantial to tuck into more than once.
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