MRR Review: "The Lunchbox"

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A mistaken delivery in Mumbai's famously efficient lunchbox delivery system connects a young housewife to an older man in the dusk of his life as they build a fantasy world together through notes in the lunchbox.
4

Rating: PG
Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: February 28, 2014
Directed by: Ritesh Batrsa
Genre: Drama / Romance

Screened during Critics' Week of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, "The Lunch Box" received the coveted Grand Rail d'Or Award, also known as the Critics' Week Viewers Choice Award. "The Lunch Box" tells the tale of Saajan, a widower mourning the loss of his wife, and Ila, who desires to rekindle some sort of romance with her husband. The theme of searching and seeking is established from the very start of the film.

Ila develops a plan to reignite a romantic spark with her husband, following the cross-cultural adage that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. She prepares her husband a delectable luncheon to be delivered to her husband at his work at lunchtime through a dabbawala in Mumbai.

Dabbawalas are the proverbial foot soldiers of an iconic delivery system in Mumbai that carries hot food from a worker's residence to the place of employment late in the morning. Dabbawalas are notorious for prompt and accurate delivery of these home-cooked meals.

The lunch box prepared by Ila for her husband ends up misdirected and delivered to the somber, older Saajan. The misdirected delivery marks the beginning of a unique, special relationship developed through the passing of notes in the midday mealtime lunchboxes.

As a young, disappointed bride, Ila is portrayed by Nimrat Kaur. She is a fairly fresh face on the Indian cinematic scene. She commands the screen as an anxious young wife trying desperately to find meaningful ways to keep her husband's interest. Ultimately, as her lunchbox relationship with Saajan grows, she learns that her spouse is involved in an extramarital affair with another woman.

For his part, Irrfan Khan shines as Saajan, the widower pining for his deceased wife. Khan is a well-known presence in Indian cinema and on the American scene as well. He played roles in two highly regarded films that did well in India, the United States and elsewhere around the world: "Life of Pi" and "Slumdog Millionaire."

The juxtaposition of the young woman feeling distant from a living husband with an older man physically disconnected from his deceased wife provides the foundation for a relationship that parts from what often follows in a film with a similar setup. In "The Lunchbox," a caring relationship is fully established through gentle notes passed between the two, without any face-to-face contact.

The seemingly lost pair begin to share ever more personal details of their lives with one another, including their hopes and disappointments. When Ila learns of her husband's infidelity, it is Saajan to whom she turns, through their lunchbox liaison. She tells the older man, in a note, that she desires to move to a different city to get away from her husband and her life as she knows it.

At this point, the plot arc pivots when Saajan suggests moving with her to a different community. In response, Ila suggests an in-person meeting. They agree to rendezvous at a popular bistro in Mumbai. They both appear, Ila not realizing that Saajan is present and Saajan not making his presence known because he determines that he is too old for the young, beautiful woman.

The scenes in the bistro underscore the talent of talent of the two main players in the film. They manage the scenes with a sense of quiet desperation that leaves a moviegoer feeling the raw emotions of both characters on a gut level. Thoroughly dejected, Ila enacts one of the most visually stunning moments in the film: She sends Saajan an empty lunchbox.

In response to the empty lunchbox, Saanjan writes back to Ila, explaining that he was present at the bistro, saw her and concluded that he was too old for her. In response to this written missive, Ila finds out where Saajan works and goes to his place of employment. Upon arriving, she learns the older man quit and moved to Nashik.

The movie ends on a hopeful, although not fully resolved, note. The moviegoer sees Saajan return to Mumbai, rounding out the theme of seeking and searching found throughout the film. The film closes with Saajan as the familiar song of the dabbawalas plays to the credits.

Because of the ubiquitous acclaim enjoyed in India at the time of the release of "The Lunchbox," the film was expected to the be the nominee from India for the Best Picture Oscar at the 2014 Academy Awards. In a move that surprised, if not stunned, many in the Indian film industry, another movie was selected as the Indian nominee. The seeming slight generated even more interest in and acclaim for "The Lunchbox" in India, the United States and other countries around the globe.

Rating: 4 out of 5