Batra’s directorial debut doesn’t necessarily break any new cinematic ground in its conceit; lonely and lost souls finding companionship through chance encounters is a feature in the likes of Lost in Translation, Mary & Max, You’ve Got Mail, Brief Encounter, The Shop Around the Corner amongst various others. Despite this familiarity, The Lunchbox is a charmingly sweet film that sparkles with heartwarming magic and wonderfully evocative performances of delicate and quiet power. It’s a truthful and welcome reminder of the joy found in connecting to another person and its necessity for human well being.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a lonely, under-appreciated young housewife whose daily homemade lunchbox for her neglectful husband is accidentally delivered to the desk of the equally lonely widower and soon-to-be retiree, Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan). Following years of contempt and disillusion at life after the death of his wife and a career of monotonous insurance accounting, Saajan is almost shocked that the world would bestow on him such a gift. As they exchange notes along the dabbawallahs lunchtime delivery system, he goes from only bothering to criticize the level of salt in the dish to declaring his most personal inner feelings to Ila, who reciprocates the level of intimacy as her desire to win back her husbands affections evaporate into a desire to discover why she cannot connect to the person she should feel closest to but can do immediately with a nameless and faceless acquaintance.
What keeps The Lunchbox from descending into a forgettable one-note feelgood film is its secondary plotline of Saajan’s relationship with Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an orphan and also-equally-lonely new employee who will be assuming Saajan’s role upon his retirement. This highlights a duality of connection – anonymously with a stranger and directly with a co-worker – where Saajan explores the same personality change. His immediate pessimistic nature of ignoring and scorning Shaik progresses towards the formation of a best friendship, bringing a resounding profoundness to the film.
As we watch Saajan travel to his work submerged in a series of overcrowded trains, it’s a visual not foreign to us all in 2014 on our daily commutes. People engulf our surroundings at all times but we do nothing to enliven this perpetual potential for connection. Saajan is someone in 2014 – looking at his phone with earphones in and the volume turned up full, actively trying to discourage human contact. His discovery and transformation should make you want to embrace every single opportunity for the warmth found in in communication. Speak to that person on the bus, in the elevator or at the park. It could result in something as nourishing and rewarding as the relationships made in this film – and the film itself.