Dictionary defines “disarming” as “tending to remove any feelings of
unfriendliness or distrust” and “allaying criticism or hostility.” It’s the
word that best describes my reaction to an elegantly simple Indian film called The Lunchbox, which marks the feature debut
of director Ritesh Batra, who also wrote the screenplay. It’s the
story of an epistolary relationship that develops between an earnest housewife,
who diligently prepares lunch for her husband every day, and a bookkeeper on
the verge of retirement, who repeatedly receives her lunch by accident.
Over the course of days and weeks, the neglected wife gains a degree of self-confidence from this correspondence, while the aging worker-bee starts to see himself in a new light. Along the way we come to share their wistful feelings about a city (and civilization) that is becoming overcrowded and less compassionate than it used to be.
Batra takes a low-key approach to the story and relies a great deal on the expressive faces of his actors, the redoubtable Irrfan Khan and the less familiar but no less engaging Nimrat Kaur. Their subtle performances enhance this delicate material and make the film a pleasure to watch.
I wish I had known more about the Dabbawallahs, a group of five thousand deliverymen who, for more than a century, have brought hot lunches to workers throughout Mumbai. Although they are illiterate, their system of organization is virtually flawless and was even studied by Harvard University. Other aspects of the film, involving the neighborhoods and backgrounds of the two protagonists, only became clear once I read the production notes. It would have enhanced my experience to learn these things from the film itself; I’m sure this would be true for other non-Indian viewers.