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The Lunchbox Movie (2013) Review: Exceptional Epistolary Drama

The Lunchbox movie Nimrat KaurThe Lunchbox movie with Nimrat Kaur. As in, to name two titles, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner and David Jones’ 84 Charing Cross Road, a long-distance “romantic” liaison develops between the two lead characters in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox.
  • The Lunchbox (2013) movie review: In his engrossing feature film debut, screenwriter-director Ritesh Batra weaves a “socio-romantic” narrative that connects a married woman seeking her husband’s attention, a despondent widower about to quit his job, and Mumbai’s peripatetic dabbawalas.

The Lunchbox movie review: First-time feature director Ritesh Batra’s excellent Indian drama merited Academy Award recognition

The Lunchbox / Dabba was not the Film Federation of India’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. This was reported as controversial at the time, notably in the Indian film community. The Film Federation chose instead Gyan Correa’s The Good Road, which failed to be shortlisted by the Academy.

We have not seen The Good Road, but it better be really good; otherwise, the harsh criticism of the Film Federation of India will be justified: Writer-director Ritesh Batra’s debut feature, The Lunchbox is an exceptional film, crafted to present an India that is profoundly traditional yet “emotionally modern,” with characters engaged in deep reflection on the past and the deepest consideration of the future.

True, The Lunchbox might also have been bypassed by the Academy’s Best Foreign Language Film voters, who, for various disqualifying reasons, missed a number of films that ought to have been in competition, among them Gloria, Blue Is the Warmest Color, In the Fog, and Touch of Sin. Even so, Batra’s drama would have been a worthy competitor among this year’s somewhat vexing selection of the world’s best films.

In any case, The Lunchbox should certainly get a shot at filmgoer’s wallets, particularly those who appreciate quality movies.

Miraculous delivery system

In Mumbai, the decades-old system for delivering lunch to thousands of office workers in the city’s densely populated business district is legendary.

As pointed out in The Lunchbox, Harvard management experts have studied the low-tech system to understand its efficacy, which involves hundreds of delivery men (dabbawalas) collecting hand-packed lunches, whether made at home or in restaurants, in specially designed “tins”; the transit of these tins by bike, scooter, and train; and their timely delivery to the individual desks of specific recipients, all by the lunch hour.

Later on, there’s the safe return of these lunchboxes to their proper homes well before the workers’ return at the end of the day.

It is an astounding feat, executed on a daily basis, with nary a lunchbox lost or misdelivered. Until this movie.

The Lunchbox movie Irrfan KhanThe Lunchbox movie with Irrfan Khan.

The unthinkable happens

As The Lunchbox opens, Mumbai’s dabbawalas crisscross the city picking up tins in brightly colored carrying bags they dangle precariously off their bikes and scooters as they make their way through the city.

Meanwhile, Ila (beautiful and talented Nimrat Kaur) prepares a meal with great care with the assistance of her upstairs neighbor whom she calls Auntie, as all young women refer to older women in traditional India. We never see Auntie; she is a voice who calls down from on high (literally) with sage wisdom and who delivers special ingredients for Ila’s prepared meals via a basket tied to a string.

Once the dabbawala arrives, Ila sends her meal along with great expectation: This lunch, with Auntie’s special ingredients, is meant to reach her husband’s heart through his stomach – apparently an old adage of many cultures. But instead, the lunchbox lands on the desk of Saajan (Irrfan Khan of Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire), a widower and soon-to-be retiree whose profound sadness is conveyed through his big brown eyes, so that little backstory is required.

In short order, both parties realize that “the thing that never happens” has happened and a mutual correspondence begins. By way of the notes they pass back and forth in the lunchbox, Ila and Saajan come to know each other, to support each other, and to fall in love.

Profound aftereffects

There is much more. All of it lovely, especially as captured by Ritesh Batra, a director who favors long, languid takes and wide shots that reveal a character’s settings and their relationship to their environment: The office, the kitchen, the train, etc. – all of it both revealing and meaningful.

Even the language, which drifts between Hindi and English effortlessly, reveals something about when and where we are. The letters between Ila and Saajan begin with a lightness – quips about the delicious food Ila has prepared – later evolving into poetic tomes where deepest fears and regrets are disclosed.

In a story that pivots on a “thing that never happens” happening, the consequences of the divergence from the norm must be profound not only for the players in the narrative but also for we who experience the story. The Lunchbox – sweet and bitter, full of heartache and hope – earns the right to ask its audience to accept the divergence, the possibility that something “new” can happen, and then revel in its aftereffects.

The Lunchbox / Dabba (2013)

Direction & Screenplay: Ritesh Batra.

Cast: Nimrat Kaur. Irrfan Khan. Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Lillete Dubey. Bharti Achrekar. Nakul Vaid. Shruti Bapna. Nisar Khan.


The Lunchbox (2013) Movie Review” endnotes

Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur The Lunchbox movie image: Sony Pictures Classics.

The Lunchbox Movie (2013) Review: Exceptional Epistolary Drama” last updated in January 2022.

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