Sometimes you must board the wrong train to get to the right station. It’s a bit of wisdom that figures prominently in — and is offered by — The Lunchbox, a sweetly engaging Hindi-language film about two wounded souls who make an accidental but vital connection in the Indian city of Mumbai. What makes an already-appealing movie all the more delicious is that it is set in motion by food.
Lunch, to be exact. The situation stems from a rare mix-up in Mumbai’s otherwise-acclaimed system of couriers who deliver lunches to office workers. One such meal, a flavorful concoction lovingly prepared by Ila (Nimrat Kaur), is expected to grab the attention (and maybe heat up the loins) of the woman’s neglectful husband.
But the lunch instead winds up on the desk of Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi), a clerical worker preparing to retire next month after 35 years of service. It is evident, however, that Saajan retired from living some time ago. A widower seemingly without friends, he maintains a life of drab solitude. Saajan presumes the food is from a restaurant that usually delivers to him, so he is caught off-guard the following day when his lunch arrives with a brief note from Ila, who has figured out the mistake.
Saajan responds with a tart missive that, in turn, prompts another handwritten message from Ila. So begins a secret correspondence that awakens both parties from the lonely existence to which they had grown accustomed. The notes are confessional, then consoling and eventually flirtatious. Ila finds someone appreciative of her interests (culinary and otherwise).
The letters have a liberating effect for Saajan, who begins to warm up to his slated work successor, an eager-to-please guy named Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).
Meet-cute pen pals have long been a staple of romantic comedy — even if the particulars these days usually involve emails or texting — but writer-director Ritesh Batra mines real poignancy and charm from the concept.
His is a remarkably assured feature-film debut. Forgoing overwrought dramatics and much of a music score, he keeps faith in his narrative. It’s a bold move. The Lunchbox gambles that its sentimentality is earned and can withstand the increasing urgency of its storyline. But Batra succeeds. (Tip to movie weepers: Bring tissue.)
A great deal of credit belongs to the principal stars. Khan, a superb actor whose English-language credits include Slumdog Millionaire and the criminally underseen The Namesake, brings an arresting complexity to Saajan. But Khan is more than matched by the beautiful Kaur. Her Ila is funny, vulnerable and altogether heartbreaking. It is a warm and wonderful performance.
The Lunchbox opens Friday at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, 2501 W. Memorial Road.