Ritresh Batra’s “The Lunchbox” is exquisite. You’d never know it from the last round of nominations for Best Foreign Film Oscar, which remains a categorical travesty every year, even if some of the winners are pretty good films (Italy’s “The Great Beauty,” the last time around).
Nominations in the category are made by the country, which means that every bit of two-bit homegrown political backbiting and local incomprehension can torpedo a truly great film from even having a chance at winning an Oscar, much less actually winning one. Despite unanimous critical and audience affection and a strong showing at international film festivals, “The Lunchbox” was passed over in India for something else.
It’s a small bilingual film made in Mumbai in English and Hindi with subtitles. It’s about a widower and claims adjuster in a government agency about to retire after the sort of 35-year record of impeccable work that has made him an office bulwark.
It’s also about a lovely young woman with an adorable young daughter (“Don’t walk under trees,” she tells her on mornings threatening rain) and a husband whose dirty laundry is about to offer up aromatic evidence of an affair.
On a day before that, though, the woman packs a lunch to be delivered to her husband at work. Their relationship has slackened so she’s received culinary advice from her unseen “auntie” living in the apartment directly over hers. They communicate by yelling at each other outside the back window and by lowering and raising baskets of food. She makes something especially delicious to reawaken her husband’s passion through his taste buds.
Unfortunately, her lunch is delivered to the wrong man – the soon-to-retire widower – by those who deliver lunchboxes from wives, restaurants and cafes. They’re called dabbawalas in Mumbai and, in this case, the deliverer gets it very wrong.
When the future retiree discovers how delicious his erroneously delivered lunch was – and polishes off every drop and crumb – he writes a note to whoever prepared it.
What is thereby begun is an epistolary romance between a melancholy older man and a lovely young mother whose marriage is slowly but inexorably fading into oblivion.
It’s the emotional subtlety with which all this is handled that makes it so exquisite. We are watching gently parallel lives as they ever-so-slowly come close to the point where parallel lines change course and meet.
At the same time, we’re watching the plot of the man’s retirement and imminent replacement by an eager but raw young man who, in his pronounced psychic disarray, somehow gets through to the older man and forges a sensitive outsider’s bond with him.
The Indian actors here are wondrous: Irrfan Khan, as the reserved and sad-eyed older man astir with tender feelings he’d long since forgotten, and Nimrat Kaur as the beautiful young woman whose exchange of notes with a man she’s never met is emboldening her to think outside of a life that has come to neglect her utterly.
The resolution is wistful and incomplete and all the lovelier for being so. What we know at the end is more than enough: They’ve touched each other profoundly.
In so doing, they’ve touched us.
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Director: Ritresh Batra
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: PG for smoking and thematic material.
The Lowdown: Much-acclaimed Indian film in which the wrong lunchbox is delivered to a claims specialist in Mumbai who develops a relationship with the woman who created it. In Hindi and English with subtitles.