Judge Gordon Sullivan prefers to dine in.
Sometimes the wrong train leads to the right station.
Romance is a well-worn road; we all know how movies about love tend to work, with a few minor variations here and there. So, anything that filmmakers can do to spice things up is appreciated. One of the ways that romance films try to differentiate themselves is in the environment that leads to love. We've had couples thrown together because of natural disasters, people meeting on trains, and all kinds of other reasons for falling in love. The Lunchbox, however, offers something new. In Mumbai, "dabbawallas" deliver lunches (either home-cooked or from restaurants) to men at work. Unlike traditional packed lunches, this food is delivered hot, and the system has been going strong for over 100 years. What's really impressive is the fact that very little prevents these deliveries from being made. Weather and rough roads are no obstacle, and their timing and delivery-accuracy is almost perfect. So perfect, that the mis-delivery which forms the basis of the plot is difficult for its characters to believe. Though only a tiny part of this romantic story, the dabbawalla network helps signal that The Lunchbox is going to offer something new to viewers looking for romance.
Facts of the Case
Ila (Nimrat Kaur, One Night with the King) is a lonely housewife in Mumbai. After seeing her husband and daughter off each morning, she prepares a hot lunch for delivery to him. As the film opens, she hopes that paying extra attention to his food will return her husband's affections to her. She sends off a particularly tasty dish, and the lunchbox is delivered back to her completely empty. When her husband returns home, she expects some word, but he is his usual distant self. Eventually, Ila discovers that the unthinkable has happened: her lunchbox was mis-delivered. It was mistakenly sent to Saajan (Irrfan Khan, The Amazing Spider-Man), an office worker nearing retirement. When the mistake is discovered, the pair begins exchanging letters, and something between them blossoms.
The epistolary novel, the novel told, at least in part, through letters, has a long and rich tradition. The inclusion of personal material like letters allows for books to include multiple perspectives, or get more personal without sacrificing a third-person narrator. Though some films have tried to re-create the technique, usually through voice-over or by printing letters on the screen, few (if any) have ever captured the real flavor that correspondence brings to a good novel. There's an intimacy in letters that's hard to capture on the screen. Letters are the product of absence, of not having another person there with you. This absence often creates the freedom to express things that would be difficult to say in person, making them strangely more intimate than physical contact in some cases. It's especially potent in the realm of the romance, where the distance/intimacy combo fuels desire.
What's most amazing about The Lunchbox is that it manages to capture and sustain the sense of an epistolary novel. I don't want to spoil the film or its ending, but the film commits to its epistolary premise and sticks with it for a surprisingly long time. In most Hollywood films, the first wrong delivery would immediately result in a meeting, budding romance, and a satisfying ending after a slight misunderstanding. By contrast, this script keeps the letters flowing for almost the entire running time, as they gradually reveal more and more about Ila and Saajan. What really works about The Lunchbox is that as the two characters learn about each other, we learn about them too. This gradual unfolding of character makes the narrative more engaging and ups the romantic stakes.
Just as significantly, these characters are played by excellent actors. Nimrat Kaur is an obviously-beautiful woman, one that most men would probably find it difficult to ignore as her husband does in the film, but she also brings a groundedness to her character that makes us believe that she's just a common housewife living day to day. Her desire for her husband, the desire we see him rebuff, seems perfectly genuine, and when she is rejected the heartbreak is written all over her face. Irrfan Khan has the opposite problem. He has to make a Scrooge-style curmudgeon both sympathetic and understandable. He starts out gruff and detached, unwilling to give his time and attention to either the kids playing on his street or the man he must train as his successor. He has to gradually open up again as the reasons for his gruffness are revealed. For actors who don't share screen time because of the epistolary structure, they have amazing chemistry.
The Lunchbox gets an excellent Blu-ray release. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC encoded transfer is generally strong. It is often bathed in the wonderful light of Mumbai, and colors are beautifully rendered. Detail is strong, in both outdoor scenes of crowds and the characters' interiors. Black levels are consistent and deep, and no serious compression artifacts show up. If I'm quibbling, there's a bit of noise in some outdoor shots, but overall the film looks excellent. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is also great. The Hindi dialogue is clean and clear from the front, with the surrounds getting a lot of use to help sell the bustling streets of Mumbai.
Extras start with a commentary by writer/director Ritesh Batra, who shares a lot of great information about the film, including its origins as documentary on the dabbawallah system. The film's trailer is also included, and we get a DVD copy of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The ending of the film will be a real sticking point for most viewers. Again, I don't want to give it away, but the film avoids either extreme of the romance genre. It's not the happy Hollywood riding-off-into-the-sunset kind of ending. Nor is it the dark, art house ending where one of the characters is stricken with an illness and dies before love is consummated. Instead, we get an ending that is complex and mature, much like the relationship that develops between Ila and Saajan. It won't please those looking for a Nicholas Sparks style union, but it's the right choice.
On its release, The Lunchbox almost immediately became one of the highest-grossing Indian films ever at the U.S. box office. With its delicate treatment of unlikely romance, it's not hard to see why. Though it won't please those looking for a cookie-cutter romance plots, adventurous viewers will be rewarded with a satisfying experience. Couple that with a strong Blu-ray release and the film is easy to recommend for rental or purchase.
Delivers perfectly. Not guilty.
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