Sunday, June 8, 2014


Sajaan Fernandes works at a dull office job. He's the sort of man who would like to be left alone, but he's too polite to tell people to bugger off.   He has applied for early retirement, but is annoyed by the energetic young fellow who has come to replace him.  Sajaan is a widower, and sometimes watches old videotapes his late wife recorded off the television; he watches her favorite old comedies so he can be reminded of her. He spends his nights smoking cigarettes on his balcony, looking into the window of the family next door.

Ila is a young woman enduring a loveless marriage. She packs her husband's lunch daily and leaves it to be delivered by Mumbai's lunchbox delivery system. One morning, through a fluke, her husband's lunch is delivered to Sajaan. This leads to a series of notes passed between Ila and Sajaan through the lunchbox. At first, the notes are merely compliments on the meal. Then they grow more personal, until grumpy old Sajaan takes things a step further and suggests the two pen pals meet.

For Sajaan, the simple correspondence comes just in time. With his retirement looming, he's feeling like a relic. He tells a co-worker that he was recently pricing a coffin for himself. He was surprised when the funeral home offered him a vertical one.  "I've spent my whole life standing in trains and buses," Sajaan says. "Now I'll even have to stand when I'm dead!" Good lines like that one are sprinkled throughout The Lunchbox, an elegant movie from India that unfolds like a delicate, paper structure.

The India of The Lunchbox is not the elegant India of old Merchant Ivory movies, or the glitzy silly place  of Bollywood musicals. Nor is it the dank, dirty countryside depicted by Satyajit Ray. The Lunchbox takes place in a modern, dreary city, where businessmen trudge to work in the mornings on overcrowded trains, each dressed in the same colorless office wear. The expression on their faces is sheer deadpan, as if they've all been stunned by the drabness of their lives. Ila is the only woman we see in the movie. She's desperate for someone to talk to and share her thoughts. 

The movie takes a turn when When Ila realizes her husband is having an affair; she reveals this sad fact to Sajaan in a note. Suddenly, Sajaan's adventurous side comes out. Ila's notes are the catalyst for Sajaan's long dormant feelings of love and compassion. But as he shaves for his clandestine appointment with Ila, he begins to feel old. The bathroom, he says later, smells the way it used to smell when his grandfather used it. When, Sajaan asks himself, did I get old?

Aging, death, and loneliness chew at the edges of the movie. Along with Sajaan's wife being dead, we learn that Ila's father has been in a coma for years. There is also a news headline read by  both Sajaan and Ila that involves a local woman who commits suicide. These dark elements give the movie a sense of melancholy even as we're charmed by Ila and Sajaan.

Writer/director Ritesh Batra is smart to keep Ila and Sajaan apart. He tells their stories separately,   and we grow to love them as characters. The actor playing Sajaan, Irrfan Khan, is a young man, 45 or so, but he carries himself with a slight weariness that makes him appear older. He's so emotionally stagnant that when he first smells one of Ila's lunches we can't tell if he likes it. He makes the same face whether he likes something or not. The gradual breaking of his serious front is one of the movie's great touches. Still, would an older actor have been better? Perhaps. But Sajaan still seems youthful enough in appearance that we believe he and Ila could possibly be together. A much older actor might look better in the role, but he wouldn't make us see the romantic possibilities here.

Nimrat Kaur, the young actress playing Ila, does a good job as a woman who craves something more than what her husband can offer. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is the movie's unsung hero as Shaikh, the man hired to replace Sajaan. He goes from being an annoying bumbler to one of the movie's most endearing characters. His blossoming friendship with the grouchy Sajaan could have been a movie in itself. Another delightful character, the mysterious 'Auntie' who lives upstairs and offers advice to Ila on love and cooking, is never seen; we only hear her shouting out her window.

The notes passed between Sajaan and Ila are slight, but when people are feeling desperate and empty, it doesn't take more than a few simple kindnesses to move them. What really makes the movie work is its willingness to show us Sajaan and Ila in detail, everything from the way Sajaan eats bananas to cure his heartburn, to the way he handles his eyeglasses and places them carefully in a little yellow case.   I like how Ila listens to music while her husband is away, but turns the music off as soon as he arrives. I like how she plays with her angelic little daughter. I like how Sajaan is short-tempered with Shaikh, but covers for him when Shaikh botches an assignment at the office. These are decent people, and we want good things for them.

I was also impressed with how the lunchbox itself almost becomes a character. The Indian lunchbox isn't the box-like contraption we use in America. Instead, it's a series of small tin canisters that fit together in a kind of cylinder, and are then slipped into a thick, green, cloth bag.  There are several scenes where we see the lunchbox being picked up by the delivery man, hauled around Mumbai, rattling around precariously on top of a truck, until it's placed on Sajaan's desk.  The lunchbox looks alone and fragile during these travels, as delicate as love itself.

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