Every so often, a movie from India comes along that forces you to reassess your own priorities (I know, for me, the last one was Gurinder Chadha's Bride and Prejudice. Seriously.). Ritesh Batra's--previously known primarily for his short films--debut, The Lunchbox, is the type of movie to affect all the senses (except, of course, touch). Centered around the lonely lives of a widower named Sajaan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan) and a neglected wife named Ila (Nimrat Kaur), the two find themselves brought together by the unusual circumstance of Ila's lunchbox being delivered to the wrong address. And so, instead of winning back the affection of her husband through her cooking, she ends up currying (no pun intended) favor with Sajaan.
After being counseled by her "Auntie" (a term of respect for the more geriatric set in India) on how to cook an amazing lunch, Ila knows her husband, Ranjeev (Nakul Vaid), won't be able to resist her once he tries her latest recipes. She puts two and two together when Ranjeev's reaction to the food is lackluster. Thus, she decides to send a note to the person who is actually receiving her lunches. This strikes up a consistent daily correspondence that both Ila and Sajaan take pleasure in. Sajaan's highlight of the day, in fact, is Ila's masterfully prepared cuisine. So intense is his enjoyment that he can't even be bothered to train Mr. Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the man who is supposed to replace Sajaan when he retires.
Shaikh is an enigma in his own right, claiming to be a seasoned accountant, only to later be found out by the head of the department as a fraud. In the time before that, however, he manages to get into the good graces of Sajaan, who is both in need of a friend and takes pity on Shaikh when he tells him he's an orphan. They begin having lunch together most every day, giving Shaikh the opportunity to notice the glow Sajaan has about him when he eats Ila's food and reads her notes.
The most remarkable aspect of The Lunchbox is the manner in which it highlights how much easier it is to share a connection with someone you barely know, particularly in a city of millions. There is something simultaneously beautiful and melancholic about this fact, and how easy it is to drift apart from those who you're supposed to be closest to. In Sajaan's case, though, his wife was lost to death rather than Ila's somewhat more tragic circumstance of losing her husband on both an emotional and physical level. Her distance from him augments when she realizes he's having an affair--merely fortifying her interest in and attraction to Sajaan (mentally speaking, of course).
As close as they feel to one another, revealing their innermost thoughts and observations of the world around them, a meeting between the two falls through when Sajaan has the realization that he's become an old man, smelling his residual malodorousness when he returns to the bathroom that morning to give himself a touch-up shave. And so, instead of approaching Ila when he sees her at the restaurant in which they're supposed to rendez-vous, he simply watches her, admiring her for her spirit and youth. In response to what she presumes is his callousness instead of his consideration, she sends him an empty lunchbox the next day.
Very much a statement on Indian culture--with dialogue like "this country has no place for talent"--The Lunchbox is a much needed glimpse into the everyday life of denizens struggling to make a connection in spite of being constantly and quite literally pushed together. The closest resemblance to it in America is, of course, New York--but even that saturation of humanity doesn't compare to the kind in cities like Mumbai. How the love story ends between Ila and Sajaan isn't necessarily the point of the film. It's that they found each other at all.