Most of writer-director Ritesh Batra’s dream debut The Lunchbox feels so real like we are watching people from right behind them.
Every spoken line is broken down into pauses, thoughts and silences and every written line (read out from letters) is simple, casual yet loaded with meaning.
Apart from the obvious metaphor of food packed in the lunchbox being a symbol of love (Amole Gupte’s Stanley Ka Dabba used this analogy too), this is about two lonely strangers making a connection through an unusual medium — the lunchbox, exchanging notes about food, life, longing and love, all over a span of a few days.
This unusual, unlikely romance is beautifully understated.
What does romance really look like? A secret smile, the long wait for the letter, lost in happy thoughts in the middle of a crowd, becoming a nicer person... Irrfan as Saajan Fernandes is all of this, subtle and sublime. He lets his eyeballs wander and lets us into his mind, while debutante Nimrat Kaur as Ila matches the veteran quite effortlessly, performing alone for most of her screen time.
And there’s the terrific Nawazuddin who once again steals the show with his affable presence. He is the face of happiness in the film, the guy the grumpy old man wants to avoid initially but slowly lets him into his life.
The Lunchbox works because it is a world we recognise and relate to. The big city life that is increasingly alienating and causing dysfunctional relationships... People in shells making no effort to reach out or connect, lost in their own mundane world of problems and routine... A crowded world that moves so fast around you that you one day wake up to find yourself old and full of regret.
This is not just an Indian story which is why it has resonated well with festival audiences all around the world.
Shots of the city and the dabba service by Michael Simmonds (cinematography) are so cleverly cut with the stories of the characters by John F Lyons (editing) that it almost feels like a documentary except that the characters never talk to the camera here.
Which is why the climax feels like it doesn't belong to this film as the director ups the drama quotient introducing elements you associate with romance films involving strangers.
It is still very subtle and abrupt treatment-wise, but the script wants us to get the sense of an ending, which the film could have done without, given the rhythm it establishes with its routine and randomness.
There is a certain randomness and routine to life that goes missing as real people turn into characters from an epic romance novel towards the end.
But these are minor grouses in a film rich in perspective and refreshing in approach. The Lunchbox is heartwarming, introspective, romantic, bittersweet and feel good, all at once.
And yes, this may indeed be our best bet at an Oscar nomination.
Director: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Storyline: A lonely old man gets the wrong lunch through the dabba service from a young housewife and they begin to exchange notes through the lunchbox
Bottomline: An achingly beautiful story about love, longing and life