Going strictly by plot description, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox sounds a little like an Indian knock-off of a Nicholas Sparks movie, but it plays out more like Brief Encounter. Irrfan Khan plays Saajan Fernandes, a Mumbai office worker who gets his lunch delivered every day from a mediocre nearby restaurant, until one day he opens his box to find a delicious home-cooked meal, prepared by Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a stay-at-home mom trying to revive a flagging marriage by taking cooking advice from her elderly neighbor. Saajan and Ila soon realize that the delivery person is mixing up their boxes—sending Saajan’s take-out lunch to Ila’s husband, while Saajan receives Ila’s amazing curries—but rather than correcting the situation, they take advantage of it and start passing notes, telling each other about their troubles and their pasts. Eventually, they start making plans to run off together to Bhutan, all the while unsure if they’re just sharing a mutual daydream, or if they’re ready to upend their respective lives.
At times, it looks like Batra is angling toward an American-style romantic comedy with The Lunchbox. The film is bright and brisk, especially once the correspondence begins (at which point a lot of Saajan and Ila’s conversation is dispatched via montage). In their notes, Saajan and Ila are prone to bits of homespun wisdom like, “Sometimes the wrong train can take you to the right station.” The two leads are also paired with characters who at least initially come across as broad comic relief. Ila has her unseen upstairs neighbor, an “auntie” who shouts down tips on how to hold on to a man, while Saajan has Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a sycophantic go-getter who’s been hired as his replacement, since he’s about to retire.
The Lunchbox sets up the Saajan/Shaikh relationship as a hackneyed “grumpy old man”/“well-meaning irritant” dynamic, but that changes once Saajan discovers that Shaikh is a self-taught orphan, who lied his way into the job so he could afford to get married. As for Ila, her encounters with her upstairs auntie are deepened by drama with Ila’s own aging relatives, and her understanding that growing old with somebody may eventually involve keeping track of medicine and changing diapers. Ila is only around 30 years old, while Saajan is a widower who gets called “uncle” and is offered seats on a crowded train by younger businessmen. But both of them are at a stage in their lives where their desires and ideals have evolved. They aren’t looking for passionate romance. They just want someone to share their thoughts at the end of a long day.
This is ultimately what distinguishes The Lunchbox from some boisterous, high-concept rom-com or sub-Sirkian contemporary melodrama. Batra is making an inquiry into values, and not in a shallow, “What really matters in life are bubble-baths and long walks on the beach” way. The film’s plot is set into motion by a mix-up that speaks to the accelerated pace of life in modern India, where people are separated from their homes and family by long commutes, relying on intermediaries and technology to maintain some connection. But Ila and Saajan hanker for the personal. They hand-write letters and watch old videotapes; once Saajan tastes Ila’s cooking, he’s reminded of what he’s been missing in his bachelor fog of packaged breads and boil-in-bag stews.
The Lunchbox comes across as a crafty crowd-pleaser, but with a clever structure that has each character disappearing from the film for a while so viewers can get a better sense of just what it would mean—and how hard it would be—for Saajan and Ila to start over. Batra never succumbs to an easy payoff. The questions that override everything else in The Lunchbox are “What do we work for?” and “What do we live for?” What makes The Lunchbox so much more than a gimmicky romance is that the answers to those questions don’t sync up. It takes a good job to afford a satisfying life, but a good job requires so many hours of work that there’s no time left to enjoy what it affords. What’s left are the fleeting pleasures: the smell of cardamom, a fondly remembered old song, and a few quiet minutes of reading at midday.