Five stars. Rated PG, for no useful reason, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang
Movie buffs live for this moment: the thrill of discovery, striking when you least expect it.
The Lunchbox, an impressively accomplished feature debut for writer/director Ritesh Batra, is a bittersweet romantic charmer: by turns droll, sensitive and achingly poignant. And although we’re thoroughly absorbed by the core story involving two lonely people, Batra also delivers a perceptive analysis of big-city Mumbai, as it struggles at a cultural crossroads sparked by the age-old clash between tradition and progress.
On top of which, we get some astute social commentary on the nature of love, the sad fate of those who settle, and the possibly greater emotional rewards for those who defy expectations and, well, take an impulsive plunge.
Not bad, for a 104-minute film that spends almost all of its time with just three characters.
Batra’s narrative also is a cinematic valentine to the grand tradition of epistolary novels, ranging from classics such as Fanny Hill and Dracula, to more modern examples such as The Color Purple and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Indeed, I frequently was reminded of Helene Hanff’s marvelous 1970 book, 84, Charing Cross Road, for reasons that I can’t specify without spoiling some of the delights to be found in Batra’s film.
And, finally, mention must be made of the wholly immersive performances from the excellent cast, starting with veteran Indian actor Irrfan Khan, who seems everywhere these days. Aside from a busy schedule in his native country, American audiences will recognize him from Slumdog Millionaire and The Amazing Spider-Man; he also was the best part of Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Lifeof Pi, as the adult Pi Patel.
He stars here as Saajan Fernandes, a government accountant who has toiled for 35 years in an employee- and paper-strewn office that could, in different hands, be the subject of biting satire. But Batra’s touch is resolutely serious, his approach matter-of-fact. We’ve absolutely no doubt that scores of such offices exist throughout Mumbai, equally staffed (stuffed?) with quiet men who juggle facts and figures, struggling with pencil, ink and hand calculators, nary a computer to be seen.
Saajan is weeks from retirement, and therefore saddled with the responsibility of training his excitable young replacement: Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), about whom, more in a moment.
Batra’s plot is driven by his story’s fourth primary “character,” the astonishing Mumbai tradition orchestrated daily by the dabbawallahs, a community of roughly 5,000 deliverymen who ferry between 175,000 and 200,000 hot meals from the kitchens of housewives to the offices of their husbands. The numbers are staggering, the process nothing short of amazing, as these lunches cross the city via bicycle, bus and train ... even during monsoons.
The positions are hereditary, dating back some 130 years, and even more impressive for the fact that almost all dabbawallahs are illiterate. The meals reach their proper destinations via a complex code of colors and symbols: a system that even led to a flattering 2010 study by the Harvard Business School ... a point of pride mentioned by one dabbawallah, at a key moment in this story.