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Brief encounters of the Indian kind

by Elijah Bukreev March 11, 2014
Brief encounters of the Indian kind

Winner at Cannes’ Critics Week, The Lunchbox, connects two lonely people with a lot on their mind

You will hear the word ‘Bollywood’ applied to this movie, which is all sorts of wrong. No, there are no eye-rolling dances, no corny music and no eccentric twists and turns. The Lunchbox couldn’t have come from Bollywood and it couldn’t have come from Hollywood as it is today. Instead, it comes, like all great films do, from the heart. First-time writer-director Ritesh Batra has made a great Indian film.

After a food delivery mix up, Ila (Nimrat Kaur, Peddlers) and Saajan’s (Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi, The Darjeeling Limited) love story unfolds, as told to us through a series of letters. Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

This is a movie that looks like a romantic comedy, starts out like a piece of neo-realism and ends up being a real treasure — an insightful character study. You walk into it, and you expect it to raise questions like “What will she wear on their first date?” Would you believe it instead goes for “What do we live for?”

The main characters are two lonely souls in an overpopulated city. She is Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a housewife dreaming of a better life, more space to breathe, a husband whose shirts wouldn’t reek of other women’s perfumes and a more rewarding relationship with her parents. He is Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a quiet, recently widowed accountant with only retirement to look forward to.

The two people are unconnected. But then, Ila sends lunch to her husband through the famous Dabbawala service — this lunchbox and dozens more are carried through busy streets by bike, two trains, foot and a strolling cart. Finally, the lunchbox lands on Saajan’s desk, in a governmental building. He contemplates it with cold curiosity, opens the cans and proceeds to eat the curry contained inside.

The lunchbox goes back empty. Ila is overjoyed: “He licked it clean!” Yes, someone licked the cans clean, but who? From the way her husband compliments her on an entirely different dish, Ila realizes her curry must have gone to the wrong address. Auntie, her upper floor neighbour who she communicates with mainly by screaming out the window, is adamant: “The delivery man never made a mistake before.”

Well, he has now, and Ila reacts to it in an unexpected manner: she goes with it. The next day, she sends the lunchbox with a small note. Saajan writes back, and a steady correspondence begins. They are both wise, intelligent and well-spoken. It is always wonderful when people like that find each other, against all odds. They have lived through things and have stories to share. Most of them are gripping. Ila and Saajan grow from contact with each other.

The strength of a film always depends on the strength of its actors, and the two leads deliver. You’ve seen Irrfan Khan in such movies as The Amazing Spider-Man and Life of Pi. He’s a skilled actor, but possibly the last you’d imagine in a romantic film. Yet, he makes it work by showing a man hardened, but vulnerable. As for his co-star, it’s doubtful that you’ve seen Nimrat Kaur anywhere, or that you’ve heard her name before, but you just might hear it again. She provides the film with its best dramatic elements. The letters might have been written, but to us, the audience, they are read. Kaur shows a mastery of voice acting — now that’s talent. She’s also drop-dead gorgeous, which helps.

There are many laughs to be had, most of them involving Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an odd-mannered apprentice desperate for Saajan’s mentorship.

Otherwise, the film keeps a serious tone, and takes its time with the story. You may find it slow. You’ll be thankful for it, too — these are characters you want to spend time with. By corresponding, they seek the same thing as we do when we go to the movies — an escape from a seemingly inevitable routine. Their letters open a window into a different world.

Sometimes, another perspective is all you need, and this movie has perspective a-plenty.

The Lunchbox opens in theatres, with subtitles in English and French, on March 21.

Online: Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwYN-XS92yY

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