His warm, well-observed romantic drama, which follows up his award-winning short "Cafe Regular Cairo" (see below), was snapped up by Sony Pictures Classics out of Cannes, where it won the viewer's choice (The Rail d'Or) award at Critics' Week. India unaccountably overlooked the indie word-of-mouth hit of Telluride and Toronto as its Oscar submission. (Trailer is below.)
The story hooks on the idea that while Mumbai is justly proud of the precision of the city's grand-scale lunchbox delivery system to and from homes and offices, what happens when something goes awry? When one lunch pail gets mixed up, a lonely young wife (Nimrat Kaur) starts exchanging notes with a lonely older widower accountant (the exquisite Irrfan Khan). He not only looks forward every day to her flavorful cooking (which her workaholic husband does not appreciate), but comes to care for her as well. As they share their lives, and their intimacy escalates, we wonder: will they meet? can these two kindrid spirits get together?
Review roundup below.
...a small story about the fragile connection between an aging widower smelling his own mortality and a despairing young housewife that offers American audiences an unusually accessible portrait of the sometimes desperate lives of urban middle-class Indians.
A feel-good movie that touches the heart while steering clear of expectation, “The Lunchbox” signals a notable debut from tyro helmer-scripter Ritesh Batra. The ingredients on their own are nearly fail-proof, yet it’s the way Batra combines food with an epistolary romance between a nearly retired number cruncher and a neglected wife that hits all the right tastebuds. An indie Indian pic with the crossover appeal of “Monsoon Wedding,” it’s sure to be gobbled up by audience-friendly fests before heading into niche cinemas.
A standout in the Cannes Critics Week that has already generated potent word of mouth, The Lunchbox is a charming first feature that describes denizens of the sprawling Mumbai metropolis in a tender, ingenious tale of romance by correspondence. Instead of using modern social media, the virtual couple meets through a lunchbox mix-up that could only happen in India. What is most endearing is the delicacy with which writer-director Ritesh Batra reveals the hopes, sorrows, regrets and fears of everyday people without any sign of condescension or narrative trickery.
Khan, Kaur and Siddique deliver first-rate, nuanced performances. The cinematography wonderfully captures the rhythms of Mumbai's people and their emotional lives, and the editing keeps a gentle pace. The music offers a rousing finale with the dabbawallas' prayers over the staccato of the train's wheels. Some may be disappointed by the ambiguous end. Yet, it is imbued with a poignancy that lingers, along with the lovely line: sometimes, even the wrong train can take you to the right destination.
All the characters have been defined nicely by the debutant director. From the train sequences to how the dabbawallahs work and then linking the Hindu Ila with the Christian Fernandes and the Muslim Shaikh, first-time filmmaker Ritesh Batra has captured the real essence of diverse Bombay beautifully in the film.
As far as acting is concerned, Irrfan plays the part of a lonely old man effortlessly. Nimrat and Nawazuddin are flawless in this old-world charm, unconventional love story.