'The Lunchbox' Explores The Complexities Of Love And Lunch In Mumbai

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In 'The Lunchbox,' Saajan's (Irrfan Khan) life is changed by a mistaken lunch delivery. (Photo by Michael Simmonds, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The Lunchbox, a new Indian film that's just opened in limited-release, has absolutely no chance at the box office this weekend. It’s Oscar weekend, and most Angelenos’ attention is elsewhere. The film’s competing against bigger names—Liam Neeson in Non-Stop and, well, Jesus, in The Son of God. And let’s not forget that The Lego Movie is still in theaters.

So like we said, no chance. But that's a shame because The Lunchbox is a good little love story that simultaneously provides a fascinating, insightful look into the middle class life (and the complex lunch delivery system) in Mumbai.

In the film, which is written and directed by Ritesh Batra, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a young wife and mother, who’s trying to spark her flailing marriage by cooking these elaborate lunches for her increasingly withdrawn husband. (Oh, and if you’re a fan of Indian food, here’s a PSA: Do not go to this film hungry.)

Her first special lunch is mistakenly delivered to another office worker, the grouchy, nearly retired Saajan (Irrfan Khan), who thinks that the cafe he orders his lunch from has stepped up its game. When Ila’s husband makes no mention of the special food, Ila puts a note in her next lunch to find out where it's being delivered.

The note opens a series of written exchanges between the two, which begins with grumpy Saajan offering a critique of her cooking, but then leads to more open and honest communication, a burgeoning friendship and then, the possibility of something more. Through their daily letter exchanges, the odd-couple find a human connection—something that’s missing from both their lives. In the process, their self-confidence grows. Both Ila and Saajan find the inner-strength to honestly re-evaluate their lives and make necessary adjustments.

Just as fascinating as watching the characters grow is the look into the lunch-delivery system in Mumbai. NPR reported on it in 2012: “5,000 deliverymen called dabba wallahs hand deliver 200,000 hot meals to doorsteps across the city. It's an intricate network that requires precise timing and numerous handoffs from courier to courier. The century-old service is a staple for the city's office workers.”

The system is complicated and complex, but it’s efficient. The mistaken lunch delivery to Saajan is an anomaly. It almost never happens, and it’s a perfect setup for Batra’s film. Harvard even did a study (referenced in the film) that examined in the efficiency of an eco-friendly system (walking, biking, and trains) that somehow still works without the use of computers or cellphones complicating matters.

The Lunchbox is a throwback to the days of pen pals, where people had to actually think and articulate their thoughts on paper without needing an immediate response via email, IM or Skype. It’s also old-school in the way that the lovers never really meet (like Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, Shop Around the Corner). And while there’s no Hollywood ending, there is hope (and maybe not in the way audiences would expect) and that’s good enough in our book.

The Lunchbox opened in Los Angeles (Laemmle Royal, Townhouse 7 and Town Center 5) yesterday and, for you Gothamist readers, in New York as well.