‘The Lunchbox’ offers poignant food for thought

Food has been a cross-cultural symbol of togetherness since, at least, the time of the first Chinese New Year or the Last Supper. Many may recall the old clich? that the fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Ritesh Batra’s “The Lunchbox” breathes new life into this concept with its intriguing love story, emphasizing the bonding power of food amid a life of isolation and the importance of second chances. And as a potential side effect, audience members may crave Indian cuisine after viewing this artistic and emotional, if perhaps somewhat unsatisfying, romantic drama.

The film tells the story of lonely housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) who tries to regain the affection of her distant husband (Nakul Vaid) with a special homemade meal. After discovering that the lunchbox she makes was accidentally delivered to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), an aging widower on the verge of retirement, Ila decides to write a note to accompany the following day’s meal, beginning a secret correspondence that rekindles the characters’ dreams and passion for life. Slowly, Ila and Saajan are motivated to become better people and to seize opportunities to improve their lives.

If nothing else, the film is a beautiful, though sad, portrayal of urban Indian life. Candid shots of workers bustling through their daily lives bookend the movie and provide a real-life context. A persistent drum beat score keeps time with the fast-paced life of city laborers as the camera follows the lunchbox’s fateful journey through Mumbai’s elaborate lunch delivery system. The viewer understands the characters’ struggles to stay hopeful in such a mind-numbing and often melancholy environment.

The film also succeeds in its many artistic moments. Scenes consistently cut back and forth between Ila and Saajan’s lives to show parallels and emphasize their mutual loneliness — simultaneously staring at the phone, reading each other’s notes in quiet, dressing for the day. In a particularly striking scene, Ila speaks with her husband about having another child in hopes of revitalizing their marriage. A mirror reflects her alone as she speaks to her aloof spouse, illuminating the sad reality of her situation. Ila is speaking to no one; the man she married is gone.

Engaging characters are another strength of “The Lunchbox.” Even small contributions from Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as Shaikh, and Bharati Achrekar, as the unseen “Auntie,” add depth and humor to the film. Both Kaur and Khan as the main characters bring great skill and subtlety to their performances. Kaur proves a formidable actress in her debut role as a courageous and frustrated middle class mother. Khan, a Bollywood actor known in the United States for his starring roles in “Life of Pi” (2012) and “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), expertly portrays a character that is gruff, yet compassionate and relatable. Frequent long shots capture both actors’ subdued moments of joy and loneliness, making their stories seem far more real and urgent than the typical romantic drama.

Unfortunately, while often moving, these numerous drawn-out scenes cause the film to drag on for what feels a lot longer than its 104-minute running time, and many viewers may leave feeling unsatisfied with the story’s open ending. Moreover, “The Lunchbox” never seems to fully rise above its initial plot device. The idea of a love affair built on delicious food and anonymous notes passed through a lunchbox is intriguing, but filmmakers seemed to struggle to close the film in an unpredictable and pleasing way.

An expertly crafted, family-friendly film, “The Lunchbox” is poignant and full of memorable characters. While some movie-goers are likely to feel a little disappointed at the film’s conclusion, it also deserves praise for its delicate and moving performances as well as its artistic form.

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