Rather mild for a film whose plot hinges on the joys of rich, aromatic food, Indian director Ritesh Batra’s debut feature, The Lunchbox, begins with a case of mistaken delivery. Trying to catch her aloof husband’s attention, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) cooks him a delicious lunch, which a courier service then wrongly gives to claims worker Saajan (Life Of Pi’s Irrfan Khan), a widower on the verge of retirement. Once it becomes clear this rerouting will happen every day—and also that these meals are truly excellent—Ila and Saajan become pen pals, exchanging platonic notes through the lunchbox. Each one confides in the other, not with deep secrets, but with the kinds of observations and reflections neither would say aloud to anyone.
Ducking his responsibility to train an overeager protégé (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), Saajan remains in semi-denial about the impending end to his career. Ila simply wants her cell-phone-addicted husband to look at her, which he barely does over the course of the entire running time. What follows is not an epistolary romance or a story of lessons learned, exactly. It’s a portrait of tentative, restrained kindness—and of the difficulties of being vulnerable to anyone, even a total stranger. Serving as a backdrop, the streets, homes, and office spaces of Mumbai are rendered in warm tones by cinematographer Michael Simmonds, who did memorably understated work on Man Push Cart and Chop Shop.
If anything, The Lunchbox is a bit too delicate, avoiding sentimentality by shirking major payoffs. As a consequence, the film feels a bit aimless. It’s a movie built out of grace notes and subtle gestures; when Saajan’s attitude toward his apprentice thaws, it qualifies as an epiphany. There is darkness on the periphery, including a few brushes with death. But most of the film seems to adopt the perspective Saajan takes when marveling at a sidewalk artist who never tires of painting the same vantage point. For the painter (and the movie), life is a series of minor variations. That’s fine as far as it goes, but The Lunchbox ultimately registers as a too-hesitant portrayal of hesitancy, and its pleasures are largely incidental.