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'The Lunchbox' review: Human connection via a mistaken lunch

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Winner of the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, “The Lunchbox” opens in Los Angeles, February 28 exclusively at Laemmle's Royal Theatre. Already a critical darling (as of this writing a whopping 97% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), Ritesh Batra’s debut feature is a beautifully crafted glimpse into the lives of two separate people in Mumbai, a neglected housewife and an office worker on the verge of retirement. Remarkably, their human connection plays out via a mistaken lunchbox.

In an astonishing documentary fashion, audiences witness the time-honored tradition of Mumbai’s Dabbawallahs who are lunchbox deliverymen. These deliverymen pick up hot meals from housewives in kitchens across the city to be delivered to their working husbands, or for single or widowed men, from specified restaurants.

Using a colored-coded system (many of the Dabbawallahs are illiterate), these men ride bikes, board overcrowded trains and maneuver crazy, chaotic streets to get the “taste of home” to the right spot. Miraculously this system of delivery rarely results in errors. But in this case, “The Lunchbox” focuses on one such error.

Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a middle-class housewife and mother. Often neglected and somewhat ignored by her husband, Ila decides to try and spice up their marriage via the lunch she prepares. With helpful advice from the unseen “auntie” who lives in the apartment above, Ila throws herself into preparing a special feast to be delivered to her husband at work.

Unbeknownst to Ila, her skillfully prepared lunch arrives at the desk of soon-to-be retired insurance worker, Saajan (Irrfan Khan). The isolated and reserved Saajan thoroughly enjoys this lunch, which until now had always been mediocre fare from a take-out restaurant. He even tells the restaurant that supposedly delivers this meal to keep up the good work.

Meanwhile, Ila is frustrated that her husband has not noticed her fine culinary skills. So with the next mixture she includes a note. Of course, it’s Saajan who receives the note, and he responds. Soon Ila and Saajan strike up an intimate, daily correspondence expressing their hopes, dreams, regrets, frustrations and fears.

Although simple in description, “The Lunchbox” has depth in the quiet revelations from Saajan, Ila, and even Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who is Saajan’s replacement as insurance worker (who Saajan begrudgingly has to train).

“Alone in a crowd” is an analogy easily applied to Saajan and Ila against the suffocating backdrop of Mumbai. Thusly, the modest act of taking a moment to put pen to paper and communicate one’s inner thoughts helps each character to break through the prison-like world they’ve created for themselves. Each finds strength in the other, and in startling ways, power to move to the next chapter in their lives.

With his debut feature, “The Lunchbox,” Ritesh Batra has created a wondrously compelling and thoughtful film. Likewise, Khan, Kaur and Siddiqui are skilled actors who bring emotional depth and chemistry to their characters. Kudos to the fine cinematography by Michael Simmonds and the tonally smart, leisurely paced editing by John Lyons.

“The Lunchbox” is 104 minutes, Rated PG and opens February 28 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in Los Angeles.

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