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Delicacy hidden in this 'Lunchbox'

Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan in "The Lunchbox"
Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan in "The Lunchbox"
Studio courtesy

Ritesh Batra's "The Lunchbox"

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Go see "The Lunchbox." Twice.

This small, masterful Indian film, reminiscent of Chekhov with its quiet, intimate portrait of people, is so subtle and affecting that you see a great deal on second viewing that might have gone by you the first time.

It is a remarkable non-Bollywood film that's both old-fashioned (think of the 1940 "The Shop Around the Corner") and a virtuoso work in depicting an appealing relationship between two strangers who may not even meet until the end or even then - no spoilers here.

An award-winner at Cannes last year, and acclaimed in several other festivals, "The Lunchbox" is finally arriving in San Francisco on March 7 (Clay Theater), opening wide on March 14 and in additional locations on March 21.

The lunchbox of the title is part of an amazing system in Mumbai, thousands of them being carried through impossible traffic and monsoon rains, finding their destination - husbands working in offices far away from home - unerringly.

A Harvard Business School study found the 5,000 dabbawalas, who deliver meals, transport 130,000 lunchboxes daily, and "mistakes are extremely rare."

Ritesh Batra's film is about one of those exceptions, a neglected wife's lovingly prepared meals going to a lonely widower office worker. The story unfolds through notes sent back and forth as the two realize what's happening, and they gradually share their innermost thoughts with each other - and the viewer becomes part of their discovery process, and care about them the way they begin to start caring about the other.

The two principal actors - surrounded by a large, excellent cast - are stars of Indian cinema, but they manage to submerge themselves completely in their roles. Irrfan Khan - of more than 30 Bollywood films, including "The Warrior," and "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Life of Pi" - is almost unrecognizable as Saajan, a veteran office worker about to retire.

Nimrat Kaur - of "Peddlers" and numerous Hindi films - is Ila, the unglamorous but memorably attractive housewife with charming, unaffected quirks.

Among supporting roles, an outstanding performance is by Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the young, ambitious, somewhat shady replacement for the retiring Saajan. The director, also the writer for the film, has come up with a winning unseen character, Ila's aunt living upstairs and guiding the young woman in affairs of cooking and of the heart - the two merging in the women's exchanges.

Batra describes the two main characters as living "in a type of prison, she in the prison of her marriage, he in the prison of his past. The story is as much about the hand of fate that guides our life as it is about the choices we have to transform our lives when we so wish."

That and much else may become clear only on second viewing, along with some psychological depth beyond the first impression of an exceptional epistolary novella on screen.