Review of our April feature
April 25 - May 1
(additional reviews are available below our featured review)
Reviewed by Joe Morgenstern
The Wall Street Journal
Sometimes, according to one of the many nuggets of wisdom in "The Lunchbox," the wrong train will get you to the right station. That's an apt image for what happens in this wonderfully fresh and affecting fable from India. Its jumping-off point isn't trains, but an intricate system of transport and delivery in contemporary Mumbai that allows thousands of office workers each day to receive hot lunches that their wives have cooked at home. The system is reputed to work almost flawlessly, but mistakes can happen, and Ritesh Batra's feature debut depicts one of them, a happy accident of misrouting that connects two unhappy strangers.
Neither one suspects, at first, that something has gone wrong, let alone potentially right. A middle-class housewife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), wants to restore some spice to her moribund marriage, so she uses all the condiments at her command to please her disaffected husband. A civil servant, Saajan (Irrfan Khan), doesn't have a wife—he's a lonely widower about to retire after 35 years—but he has his office lunches delivered from a commercial kitchen, and the meal that comes from Ila, unbeknownst to him, tickles his palate, strikes his fancy and inflames his curiosity. On Ila's side, though, her husband's continued indifference at home prompts her to include a note in the next day's lunchbox. Reading the note, Saajan can't resist sending back a response. Thus does an emphasis on gastronomy give way to an epistolary romance at the virtual intersection of food and love.
Strayed notes and hidden identities are the stuff of countless plots. Still, "The Lunchbox" tells its tale with exceptional grace, and an urgency that grows, paradoxically, from its slow but assured pace. (And its quietude; the film's Mumbai neighborhoods are poetically calm.) Mr. Batra tells us a lot about his endearing couple, but he invites us to infer a lot more, and it's a winning strategy. Ila knows she's committing a kind of adultery by continuing the communication with notes, as well as nourishment, but she's clearly had enough of her life. Saajan looks to be hale and hearty, but he's terrified of growing old. The centrality of food provokes inevitable—and enjoyable—associations: I thought of "Ratatouille" when Saajan first smells Ila's fatefully alluring cauliflower. The scent of mortality also recalls Anthony Hopkins's aging, repressed butler in "The Remains of the Day," though Sajaan's repression seems reversible, and his fate hasn't been sealed; he may, or may not, find his inamorata in the end.
For the acting alone, "The Lunchbox" is a sumptuous treat. Ms. Kaur, as Ila, is as nuanced as she is beautiful. She's also deliciously funny as she cooks in her small kitchen while consulting her unseen auntie, who lives upstairs and uses a little basket on a string to lower crucial ingredients to Ila's window. Nawazuddin Siddiqui transforms Shaikh, Saajan's young colleague and, imminently, his successor, from a servile worm into a person of volatile anger and solid consequence. And through it all moves the marvelous Irrfan Khan. One of the finest actors of our time, and blessed with a voice that can turn any of the languages he speaks into music, Mr. Khan is the film's heart and soul as he reads aloud Saajan's notes of longing. "I think we forget things if we have no one to tell them to," he writes to Ila. Luckily for them, and for us, the two have memorable things to tell.
-- Joe Morgenstern / The Wall Street Journal
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