Director: Ritesh Batra
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 lunchboxes. This film is charming, funny, poignant and wonderfully simple.
The plot revolves around Mumbai’s infamously efficient delivery system of lunchboxes and the strange turn of fate that occurs when one of these lunchboxes is delivered to the wrong person. Ila, a lonely housewife to a husband who barely pays attention to her or anything besides work, cooks a meal she thinks will make him fall in love with her again. But, instead, the lunchbox finds Saajan, an aloof, curmudgeonly widower on the brink of early retirement. They start to communicate via notes left in the lunchbox, forming a bond based itself on food, memories, and loneliness.
That is to say, the notes are often beautiful little vignettes in themselves, where we are left to imagine some of the stories being told, while in others, we mostly see exactly what is being narrated; either way, the effect is consistently gripping. The letters become a regular routine between the two individuals whose lived experiences and identities seem different but which are, in many ways, also the same. And in sending and receiving these letters, these individuals both start to change; they learn to navigate the trials and losses they experience and question what kind of agency they must have in order to make themselves happy, even if they are still very much alone. Certain events outside of the notes seem to connect the two individuals together as well, and an unrequited love story seems to simmer and stew with the same kind of complexity, respect and longing as Ila’s food.
Food in itself becomes a kind of character; it is a catalyst and it is a connecting factor for the two individuals; it is the basis of love, of romance, of family and moreover, of culture. It permeates the film’s narrative: without food, there would be no notes, no human connection. And, the film treats cooking and eating with a kind of reverence; each shot of the food is composed in such a way where you can almost smell the scents of everything through the screen, or feel the varied textures of things when they’re being chopped, sprinkled, ripped, dipped and tasted. The sounds of the city, and of old Bollywood film songs and television shows, also come together to help form a fully sensual experience– you’re subtly but fully immersed in this world and quietly but intensely invested in these two main characters, as a sort of pen-pal love affair maybe but also, more importantly perhaps, as individuals at very different stages of life going through very similar emotions.
I loved the film for all these reasons and more, and would recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in foreign cinema; it is an accomplished debut feature from writer/director Ritesh Batra that needs to be seen, heard and felt. As someone who took a course on Bollywood film, it was refreshing to see a more restrained representation of this world that is less kitschy and vibrant, more nuanced and realistic, but somehow, still equally magical and, of course, enjoyable. I thought the sound mixing and editing were used to particular advantage for humor, and for immersion and sensation as mentioned before. Editing in general really impressively and interestingly weaved aspects of the storytelling too, to connect these characters to each other, and to connect their handwritten notes to the lived experiences and emotions which they describe. So to say that the film was simple in those ways is to do a disservice to the artfulness and eloquence of the film, even in its more melodramatic moments. But, it is simple in the sense that it is powerful without being excessive or pretentious. It is just a charming and poignant little movie that, somehow, manages to say so much without really saying much at all.