“Sometimes, the wrong train will get you to the right station.” That’s the mantra of The Lunchbox, a charming Indian comedy that deals with missed connections while itself staying resolutely on track. If co-writer and director Ritesh Batra occasionally takes his sweet time getting from point A to point B, it’s equally true that he gives the audience a nice, comfortable ride.
The Lunchbox opens with images of commuter trains criss-crossing Mumbai before focusing in a more modest means of transportation: a bicycle belonging to one of the city’s world-renowned lunch couriers, who deliver homemade meals to office workers via an apparently foolproof delivery system. (“They came from Harvard to study us,” says one of the couriers. “The King of England came to see.”)
In order for Batra’s film to work, however, the lunch couriers are required to make a mistake, and a delicious spread prepared by young housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) for her husband ends up on the table – and in the stomach – of 50-something account manager Saajan (Irrfan Khan), who at first thinks that his caterer of choice has simply improved their vittles.
Ina, meanwhile, comes to two realizations in fairly short order: that her husband hasn’t been getting her meals, and that he can’t tell the difference between home-cooking and takeout. Perceptive viewers will figure out that this augurs poorly for their relationship, but The Lunchbox doesn’t devote much screen time to Ina’s marriage. Instead, Batra focuses on Saajan’s strained but burgeoning friendship with the younger man (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) he’s training to take over his job. These scenes show us that Saajan is a stubborn but basically tender old soul in need of human contact.
Batra also slow-plays the gradual epistolary courtship between Ila (who begins daydreaming about the man on the receiving end of her paneer) and Saajan, which suggests an Indo-metropolitan riff on The Shop Around the Corner. Where a Hollywood revamp like You’ve Got Mail facilely updated director Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 classic by substituting e-mail for mash notes, The Lunchbox makes a point of keeping the communiqués analog – an old-fashioned gesture in a local culture still caught between high-tech modernity and tactile traditionalism. (Saajan’s job, which involves entering numbers into a paper ledger, nods at this as well).
With his hangdog eyes and offhandedly handsome features, Khan makes an irresistibly rumpled, quietly yearning hero. It’s a measure of his movie-star charisma that we instantly identify with Sajaan and root for him to track down his comely new pen pal. Kaur is appealing but more remote, which surely has more to do with the writing of her role than her performance. A scene in which Ila confesses in a letter that she’s been fantasizing about another woman in her neighbourhood who committed suicide is grim in an unearned sort of way.
We can feel the plot machinery turning at all times around these characters, but because The Lunchbox is a well-built contraption – as sturdy and functional as the multitiered metallic container of its title – the feeling is more cozy than claustrophobic. Sometimes, all that needs to be said about a movie is that it works.