I went to The Lunchbox to see Irrfan Khan, that great soul, find his soulmate. Khan’s characters almost never get the girl. In movies like Life of Pi and TV shows like In Treatment, he generally plays a lonely existential hero, a man who feels and knows much more than most of us ever will but has no one to share his stories with. The Lunchbox, a love story in which the lovers don’t share any screen time, turns out to be a subtle variation on that theme.
Khan’s Saajan Fernandes, a socially isolated civil servant about to take early retirement and ride out his remaining years in a slow glide toward death, regains his joie de vivre as he falls for Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a woman whose marriage is failing. Meanwhile, the only person he spends time with is Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the young man hired to replace him.
Saajan and Ila get acquainted though letters. Their relationship starts when a dabbawalla, who picks up the excellent lunches Ila makes every day and takes them to her husband, delivers her lunch to Saajan by mistake, in place of the mediocre restaurant lunch he usually gets. The next day, Ila includes a note to the stranger who ate yesterday’s lunch, in case the mistake is repeated. He replies to her note, she replies to his, and they start an exchange that grows a little more personal and more intimate with each letter.
Like Saajan’s dabbawalla, The Lunchbox delivered something different than I had expected—and much better. Cowriter and director Ritesh Batra paces his story masterfully and fills it with telling detail, whether he’s cutting between Ila’s and Saajan’s lives to illuminate their parallel isolation or showing us the urban congestion in Mumbai that makes them feel that much more alone. He finds humor in unexpected places, like the intimate yet shouted exchanges between Ila and the upstairs neighbor she communicates with through their open kitchen windows.
But the best thing about this humane romance is how insightfully and intelligently it reveals its three main characters. Siddiqui is slyly wonderful as Shaikh, who initially appears to be a brown-nosing twit but turns out to be something else altogether. Kaur is lovely as Saajan’s female equivalent, a gravely self-contained woman who feels things deeply. And Khan steals the show, delivering a nuanced portrait of a man surprised by love who swims up from the depths of depression, sinks briefly back down, then finds his balance again.
Written for The L Magazine