A Moving Feast, by David Bax
On the cover of the current issue of LA Weekly, Amy Nicholson asks, “Who killed the romantic comedy?” Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox suggests that maybe the genre is not dead at all. Perhaps it faked its murder, changed its identity and moved to India.
The Lunchbox would not qualify as a comedy per se but its soft humanity brings it close enough. What truly betrays its rom-com roots, though, is that it takes the reliable and seemingly forgotten genre approach of presenting a premise whose concept is high in the clouds while letting the emotional skeleton of the film keep its feet on the ground.
Nimrat Kaur plays Ila, a young Mumbai housewife. Before I proceed with introducing the plot, I need to stop and let you know what a wonderful, bright and endearing screen presence Kaur is. I don’t know if she’s reached “India’s Sweetheart” status at home but, if they haven’t crowned her yet, we should try and swoop her up. She could be the Meg Ryan for a post-racial America.
Anyway, she spends her mornings making lunch for her husband which then gets picked up and delivered by Mumbai’s world-famous bicycle courier system to his office. A glitch in the works leads to her lunch going instead to Saajan, a widower nearing retirement played by the always welcome Irrfahn Kahn. Ila pieces together what’s happened, even though her constantly preoccupied husband remains oblivious. The next day, she places a note in the lunchbox, sparking a correspondence and eventually a friendship between the two lonely souls.
Ila’s unfriendly and uninterested husband is a bit of a romantic comedy cliché. Like David Schwimmer in Six Days Seven Nights, he’s so demonstrably wrong for our female lead that we don’t object to her looking for romance behind his back. But Batra handles this trope deftly, weaving it deep into the tapestry and focusing more on the specifics of the two main characters. I hinted at a romance just then but it would be wrong of me to reveal whether or not their relationship actually goes in that direction. It might also be beside the point.
Saajan is also a bit of an archetype. Faye Dunaway’s programming exec in Network would refer to him as “crusty but benign.” He’s a gentle man but set in his ways and instinctively distrustful of newness and youth. Tasked with training his replacement at work, he blows off the tyro with blatant disdain. His communications with Ila begin to thaw him, however. But before those letters began, there was the food. The Lunchbox is a foodie film, to be sure. You can almost feel the sweet and spicy steam that billows out of the boxes Saajan opens. You can imagine the specific taste and texture of each green bean, potato and curry. As a man accustomed to doing the same job every day, eating the same thing every meal and watching the same video tapes of his late wife’s favorite television shows every night, the variety in his lunches from Ila represents a sea change. The richness and detail of the flavor hints at experience and wisdom beyond her comparatively few years.
While Saajan’s life is repetitive by choice, Ila’s has long been so by tradition. Her variations in the kitchen and her frank and hilarious conversations with an unseen neighbor woman – shouted back and forth through windows – represent her attempts to expand as far as her domestic confines will allow. As much as you may hope for Saajan to reclaim his joie de vivre, you will clutch your armrests in anticipation of Ila’s breakthrough. Her place in society makes the stakes much higher.
The possibility of two people meeting via a courier’s mistake may be exactly the sort of unrealistic premise upon which the more recent breed of American romantic comedies would turn. Those films, though, extend their falseness to fill all contours, cynically expecting the audience to swallow it based on formula alone. The Lunchbox takes its central conceit and uses it to explore with great humanism the potentials – for love, for experience, for sadness, for change – we all contain in our shared reality.