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The Lunchbox

One of the things I find enormously satisfying about foreign movies is the details they provide, often incidental to the story, about daily life in other parts of the world. Take this little comedy-drama, set in the city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) but nothing like the all-singing, all-dancing, all-night Bollywood spectacles that may come to mind when you think of Indian cinema. It seems that in this most densely overpopulated of cities, a brisk business is done in delivering lunches to office workers. Intermediaries called dabbawalas collect the lunches—in metal pails comprised of four interlocking segments—from restaurants all around the city and route them to their locations by train, repeating the intricate process later in the day to return the empty pails. The process is shown under the opening credits of The Lunchbox, and it’s a marvel of efficiency: I would never want to live in Mumbai, but it’s fascinating to see how the people who do adapt to its pressures.

This system is also used to deliver hot food from a worker’s home, and we see it employed by Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a housewife who is hoping to regain her husband’s lagging attention with special recipes she is getting from the older woman who lives in the apartment upstairs.

But as famously reliable as the dabbawalas are, in this case they make a mistake and deliver her lovingly prepared dishes to Saajan (Indian star Irrfan Khan—you may recognize him as the police inspector questioning the young hero of Slumdog Millionaire, or as the adult Pi in Life of Pi). Preparing to take early retirement after 35 years at an insurance company desk (think of Jack Lemmon in The Apartment if he hadn’t met Shirley MacLaine), Saajan is a loner who won’t be missed by his co-workers. But the unexpected feast sparks something in him that has been empty since his wife died, and he begins a communication by note with the unknown cook whose food continues to arrive on his desk every day.

From there, The Lunchbox goes where you might expect it to go, as the two correspondents tend to needs the other hasn’t quite realized were going unfulfilled. Delicately written and directed by first-time filmmaker Ritesh Batra, it displays a gentle wisdom that keeps you watching even when it looks like it might sink into an unlikely happy ending: You sense it will steer clear of that, and so it does, taking these characters to a different happy place which we can believe in. The film’s unhurried pace may vex some, but only those who haven’t learned to relish the details.

Watch the trailer for The Lunchbox

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