‘Lunchbox’ delivers cinematic goods

by Varun Bhuchar | 4/6/14 3:31pm

After years and years of watching Indian movies with my parents, I’ve come to the conclusion that 99 percent of Indian cinema is not very good. Movies that shouldn’t last more than 80 minutes get drawn out to three-hour musical extravaganzas complete with an army of backup dancers, a multitude of European locations and strategically blowing wind. Add in clichés, musical cues that attempt to tell you how to feel, horrifically bad acting, dialogue that makes it sound like the writer hasn’t contacted human beings for 20 years and editing done by someone who just discovered Windows Movie Maker, and you’ve got to wonder how on Earth this industry stays financially solvent.

But wading through the desolate swamp that is Indian cinema is worth it for the few gems you can find. “The Lunchbox” (2013) is one such diamond in the rough and showcases a potential rarely seen in Indian cinema.

The lunches of Mumbai’s office workers are delivered through an intricate system in which a dabbawala picks up the lunch from a person’s home, delivers it at the appropriate time and returns the box before the day is done. This system, in place for about 125 years, has an almost nonexistent error rate.

But what fun would a movie be without some modicum of happenstance? “The Lunchbox” focuses on Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a widowed government worker on the verge of retirement, who accidentally receives a lunchbox from Ila (Nimrat Kaur), meant for her husband. Ila is a young mother whose marriage is faltering. Eventually, she and Saajan strike up a relationship via the letters they pass back and forth in the box.

At a slim (for Bollywood) 104 minutes, “The Lunchbox” is a rarity in an industry obsessed with love stories. This relationship feels real and beautiful as opposed to the convenient coupling that occurs in nearly every other Bollywood film. There are also no songs to distract from the lack of plot because, hey, there’s actually a plot, and it’s pretty good!

In fact, solely by not bowing to convention, “The Lunchbox” sets itself apart from other Indian films. Take, for example, the character of Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). He is to replace Saajan after he retires, and at first, the curmudgeonly Saajan rejects him. However, the two grow into good friends. Nobody devolves into a caricature, no shortcuts are taken and it all feels just right.

“The Lunchbox” is also slightly experimental in that it is epistolary, a style usually relegated to literature. “The Lunchbox” succeeds mainly because the correspondence and blooming love between Saajan and Ila occurs through written communication. This provides a wonderful contrast for Saajan because he is mostly a silent, stoic man, apart from his voice-over when reading the letters.

While “The Lunchbox” is an excellent film, it is not an exemplary one, but it is a step in the right direction for Indian cinema. Part of the reason for this is the film’s producer, Anurag Kashyap. A well-known director in India by his own right, Kashyap is known for his violent and stylized films that feature more sex, drugs and violence than have been customary in Indian films.

While “The Lunchbox” is a departure from most of Kashyap’s fare, it does point to a trend of trying to create films that don’t just appeal to the domestic Indian audience. Perhaps “The Lunchbox” is the beginning of something new for the world’s most prolific film industry.

Rating: 8.8/10

“The Lunchbox” is currently playing at the Nugget.