We're barely into the new year and one of the top ten films of 2014 has already arrived.
"Isn't it a bit too soon?" you are asking. "Is this pundit just chomping at the bit in an inexcusably neurotic manner just to break away from the 2013 moviola pageantry that won’t end until the last Oscar is handed out by someone encased in a Givenchy gown and a Harry Winston tiara?"
I don’t believe so. Clearly, instantly, and with applaudable panache, Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox unspools across the screen with the same brilliance as Her, The Act of Killing, and The Missing Picture did last year.
Lensed in Mumbai, here is a tale of true yearning between two folks who should never logically have encountered each other.
Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widowed accountant, is about to retire from a company where he’s just a featureless entity, a dependable pencil pusher who’s never committed an error in all his decades of employment. You know and he knows he won’t be missed the second he packs up his erasers.
A long train ride away, in the far side of the city, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young mother spends her days cooking and cleaning and yelling through the kitchen window to her ancient aunt who lives above her for recipe tips. Ila thought marriage would be more than this, but she would be satisfied if her spouse showered an iota of appreciation on her -- but to him, she is little more than a servant.
There’s a line in Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous The Garden of Eden, where Catherine, the slightly unhinged heroine, wisely notes, "It’s terrible to be in bed together and be lonely." This is Ila’s state of affairs.
So how do a pair of isolated souls who inhabit disparate worlds connect?
Blame it on the Dabbawallah, which according to the film’s production notes are a "community of 5000 dabba (lunchbox) deliverymen. It is a hereditary profession. Every morning the Dabbawallahs deliver hot meals from the kitchens of housewives to the offices of their husbands, and then return the empty lunchboxes back to the housewives in the afternoon." And these impoverished, uneducated gents have been doing so for 120 years with very few missteps.
Well, one day a slip-up does understandably occur, and the edibles meant for Ila’s husband arrives on Saajan's desk. The accountant, who orders his meals from a cheap restaurant, can’t believe the delicacies presented to him. And this occurs day after day until Ila realizes her spouse is not receiving the meals she so slavishly concocts so she includes a note within the lunchbox she sends out so diligently. And Saajan responds. And Ila writes back. And so on.
Yes, both sides of this duo, each so alone, have discovered someone they can share their secrets with, but will scrawled therapy sessions turn into amour? And will amour evolve into a life together?
This feature debut by writer/director Batra keeps you guessing and hoping romance will win out while simultaneously exposing the inner workings of a society that is frenetically paced yet unrelentingly rigid in the manner with which it wants to control its members. The Lunchbox is marvelously acted and shot; experiencing it is like being exposed to your first Truffaut. You know here’s an artist you’re going to have a long, prosperous relationship with. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Theatre into Film" and "The Arts in New York City" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writinggroup FlashPoint.