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The Lunchbox ***1/2

Is it worth $10? Yes

Life has a way of humbly breaking us down, and if we lack strength and fortitude it can leave us perpetually in shambles. At times when normal pursuits don’t rouse us from our funks, and despair is omnipresent with nary a glint of hope, it can be the unexpected that allows us to see a new light. In the case of writer/director Ritesh Batra’s feature film debut, “The Lunchbox,” it’s the kindness of strangers after an unlikely mistake that brings the two protagonists together.

In Mumbai, Saajan (Irrfan Khan, “Life Of Pi”) is a lonely widower who’s a month away from retirement. He has no friends, and can’t stand the new guy (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) he’s been asked to train to replace him. He receives lunch from the Dabbawalas, the city’s lunchbox delivery service that is reputedly always on time and never makes mistakes. Today, however, to Saajan’s good fortune they’ve made a mistake.

Instead of getting the service’s typically bland lunch he receives a meal sent by a forlorn housewife named Ila (Nimrat Kaur) that’s meant for her distant husband (Nakul Vaid). Saajan enjoys the meal, but sends a note back saying it’s too salty. Ila responds in kind, and soon enough they both realize the mistake that’s been made but do not complain. Instead, they take solace in writing openly and honestly to a stranger, bring comfort to one another, and enjoy feeling what grows into a genuine emotional communication, which they both desperately need.

The long distance symbiotic emotional bond is nothing new for movies – it was previously seen in “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) and “The Lake House” (2006), among others – but “The Lunchbox” comes at a time in which technology has changed the way people communicate, and not necessarily for the better. It’s fascinating to see a story void of Facebook, Twitter and texts and yet still carry a poignant message about the importance of personal communication. It’s a good movie in its own right, and it serves as a reminder of how the world communicated prior to technological takeover.

The film was shot on location in Mumbai, which becomes a character in itself. In fact, Batra goes to great pains to show off the hardships of city life, including overcrowded trains, lack of privacy in homes and poverty. It is into this world that these characters venture everyday, which doesn’t provide much reason for optimism.

Although this is a “Bollywood” film (meaning it was made in India), it does not feature musical sequences, or even an original song, as many Bollywood features do. And nor should it. Having a musical sequence would stand out as an odd “look at me” moment that would directly contrast with the quiet, intimate story being told. This isn’t a romance, but as the connection between Saajan and Ila grows we root for them to embrace the comfort the other offers and use it to find happiness. A song-and-dance number in the midst of all this would’ve been an egregious distraction.

“The Lunchbox” is the type of calm, thoughtful drama that’s emboldened by a simplicity not often found in modern movies. It’s also sweet and heartwarming in all the right ways.

Did you know?

Khan played the father in "The Namesake," the police officer in "Slumdog Millionaire" and the adult Pi in "Life of Pi."

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