Review / ‘The Lunchbox’ (PG) *** and a half

HURRAH! Indian writer/director Ritesh Batra’s debut feature is about real people, with not a frame showing big mobs of girls and boys wearing bright-coloured costumes that come teasingly close to baring the good body bits as they perform vigorous, noisy song and dance numbers with scant connection to the plot.

the-lunchboxThe story unfolds among Mumbai’s dabba industry. Every day, a fleet of every imaginable form of land transport fans out around Mumbai delivering home-cooked lunches to workers’ desks in tiffin dishes. Reportedly, Harvard University research once revealed that in half a million deliveries, only one went to the wrong place. And that’s the foundation of Batra’s film.

Insurance assessor Saajan (Irrfan Khan) opens his tiffin set and finds it’s not his usual order. In fact, it’s scrumptious. When Ila (Nimrat Kaur) opens the empty dishes, she’s gobsmacked. Every skerrick has been eaten. This comes as a surprise; lately, her husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid) hasn’t been paying attention to her cooking. From that discovery, a correspondence slowly develops between neglected Ila and widowed Saajan who, as he approaches retirement, is charged with training new clerk Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) to succeed him.

The story grows out of notes concealed in the tiffin set and Saajan’s issues with a replacement whose reliability and punctuality aren’t great. Batra’s in no hurry to develop these themes. He sets sequences in Mumbai’s crowded commuter trains and footpaths. Ila’s days are punctuated by shouted conversations with unseen Auntie in the apartment above whose husband, in a catatonic state for several years, spends the daytime hours watching the overhead fan. These are but a small but characteristic sample of Batra’s illustration of lower-middle-class Mumbai life.

Where’s it all going? Ila and Saajan have never met. There is a prospect of the pair leaving the city for a rural life together. The film’s resolution is tantalisingly incomplete, but what has preceded it sends us out glad that Indian cinema practitioners prepared to shun Bollywood hoopla in telling satisfying stories still do it well.

At Palace Electric

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