The Lunchbox (Dabba)

Directed By: Ritesh Batra

Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui

"Sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right station."
-Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui)

2014 marks another year in which the Academy got it wrong, particularly for Best Foreign Language Film.  Sure, The Great Beauty rightfully was nominated and won the award.  The problem is that it didn't face off with the other great foreign language films of the year like The Past and Blue Is the Warmest Color.  While the Academy ignored two really good movies, there was one great film that it never got the chance to disregard, the Indian romantic comedy-drama The Lunchbox.  For whatever bizarre reason, this rousing, heartwarming piece of cinema was not India's submission to the Academy.  Considering how wonderful this film is, it's downright baffling.

Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan) works in the claims department at a government office in Mumbai.  After 35 years on the job, he has decided to take an early retirement and move to Nashik.  Before packing up and getting on the train, his boss wants him to train Shaikh (Siddiqui), an eager new hire who will take Saajan's place when he is gone.  Saajan is signed up for the dabbawalas service and receives a lunchbox on a daily basis by delivery.  One fateful day, he receives the wrong lunchbox by mistake and has the most delicious lunch.  It's needless to say that he empties the lunchbox during this heavenly meal.  Believing it to be the normal restaurant who cooks his meals, he commends them for such fine work and requests that they maintain the same standard going forward.

His normal restaurant isn't behind the delicious meal Saajan has enjoyed, however.  His appetite was satiated by a woman he's never met, a housewife named Ila (Nimrat Kaur).  She actually prepares a magnificent lunch to please her husband and cook her way back to his heart.  When she receives the lunchbox back from the deliveryman that day, she believes she's done just that.  When her husband mentions cauliflower that was not on her menu later that night, she realizes that someone else enjoyed that lunch.  The next day, Ila prepares another lunchtime feast but sends a note explaining that the lunch was meant for someone else.  After enjoying another lovely meal, Sajaan replies with his own letter thanking her but noting that the food was too salty today.  The wrong train is apparently getting these two lonely souls to the right station.  From here, a beautiful relationship begins as Sajaan and Ila spice up their lives exchanging fine cuisine and letters via a green little lunchbox.

How do you build a romance where two lovers lives move in parallel, where they never actually once meet on screen?  That's the task at hand for first time director Ritesh Batra in the romantic comedy-drama The Lunchbox.  As Sajaan and Ila exchange heartfelt letters exposing the rawest forms of themselves to one another, it's hard not to feel the love in the air.  For his part, Irrfan Khan gives a charming performance in which he transitions from a grumpy old man to a guy who's found his second wind.  For her part as Ila, Nimrat Kaur gives a wistful performance as her character wanders through a metaphorical wilderness.  At the center of it all, we have Ritesh Batra whose rhythmic direction adds a kinetic energy to the romance.  Every time Sajaan meticulously opens the dabbawala and takes a whiff of the feast ahead or Ila anxiously awaits the deliveryman and the lunchbox that would be empty if not for a letter, it's clear.  In these moments and many others, we can feel the heightened anticipation and all the desperate curiosity that define this rather unique tale of love.  The film pulsates with this vibrant energy thanks to strong direction from Batra.
While the romantic elements of the film are well done, the comedy is really what lies at the heart of The Lunchbox.  As a grouch, Irrfan Khan certainly contributes his fair share of hilarity.  In particular, his on-screen interactions with Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Shaikh are comedic gold.  It's all in Khan's off-putting body language in his reactions to Siddiqui, his exact opposite in every way.  The other comedic gem of the film is someone who never actually appears on screen.  I'm talking about Ila's auntie who lives upstairs.  Voiced by Bharati Achrekar, this old girl is nothing but the truth.  Offering her own brand of caustic wit, she enamors the audience time and time again throughout the film.  Thanks to these endearing performances, there is plenty of hearty humor throughout this romantic comedy-drama.

The Lunchbox is a 1st class pass to a good movie.  I have nothing but love for this movie.  I just regret that this film never got its glory during awards season. Ritesh Batra's directorial debut is a soulful, joyous film that hits all the right notes.  Batra does nothing but add to Bhutan's "Gross National Happiness".  The Lunchbox gets a strong 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.