The sweet and savory epistolary romance The Lunchbox spins a variation on the adage about getting to a man’s heart through his stomach. In this case, the man in question’s heart is certainly touched, but the food he’s illicitly feasting on serves as a wakeup for something else: his soul. It’s more than the woman cooking the food intended. But then, spells have a way of getting away from the caster.
In another unassailable performance, Irfan Khan plays Saajan, a bottled-up accountant who’s been crunching numbers at a company for decades and is nearing retirement. He’s a man of turtle-like deliberation and precision; “35 years without a mistake,” his boss marvels. In the sprawling, crowded Mumbai office where he toils, string-bound paper files and old bound ledgers are still the tools of the trade. Every day at the same time, men on bicycles peddle through the Mad Max traffic to deliver mounds of tiffins; stacked metal tins containing different dishes that together make a lunch. Most of the office workers seem to receive theirs from home; Saajan, a widower, gets his sent from a restaurant. But one day he smells something different, and is transported by the food to places in his head he didn’t realize still existed.
In a small apartment, young mother Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is cooking up lunches to impress her inattentive husband, only to realize that he ate the meal intended for somebody else. Then, she gets a note from her mystery customer: “Too salty.” Having nearly given up trying to make her husband pay attention to her and her daughter, Ila turns her unseeing gaze to Saajan. He at least notices her, sending the tin dishes back nearly licked clean. She works to impress him with new dishes and flavors, calling on her chatty, gossippy old neighbor upstairs for help. The food serves as a joint lifeline for two people on the verge of giving up.
Their relationship doesn’t stay confined to food, of course. Ila and the older Saajan haltingly open up to each other in the little folded notes they pass back and forth via the unaware tiffin carrier. It becomes a two-way relationship, with Ila sharing her panic over dying slowly in her stifling marriage, and the intensely private Saajan sharing his unease. In a Christmas Carol-like turn, Saajan transforms from the mangy old grouch who frightens children away from his home and ignores the young go-getter Shaikh (the very hard-working Nawazuddin Siddiqui) theoretically replacing him. While Ila’s depression grows, his heart expands.
First-time writer/director Ritesh Batra could have easily let that transformation get away from her. But a buttoned-down pro like Khan, who works wonders with little more than his sad eyes and a tired flick of the wrist, keeps a cool simmer going that prevents the schematic demands of this tale from overheating. That coolness of Saajan’s plays neatly against Shaikh’s bright eagnerness and Ila’s romantic yearnings. They’re three lonelyhearts looking for a purpose and a home in an overwhelming city of strangers. “What do we live for?” Ila asks in one of her more plaintive letters. The Lunchbox never spells out a response to that question, reveling instead in the smells and incidents encountered while looking for the answer.