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Movie review: ‘The Lunchbox’

The Lunchbox

* * * 

Director: Ritesh Batra

Cast: Irrfan Khan, Nimraut Kaur

Rated: PG (thematic material, smoking)

Running time: 104 min.

Posted 6:29pm on Friday, Mar. 21, 2014

The most lasting result of seeing The Lunchbox is an intense desire for Indian food. In fact, here’s an idea for a great evening out — a screening of this movie, followed by a long, sumptuous dinner at a good Indian restaurant. Beyond that, The Lunchbox is a mixed affair, mostly a pleasure, but with a non-ending ending that will leave many frustrated.

It’s a story grounded in India’s elaborate lunch system, in which bicycle carriers deliver home-cooked meals to men at their workplace. Nimrat Kaur plays a young, unloved wife who tries to rekindle her husband’s passion through her cooking, but her lunches keep getting delivered to another man — Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a stern fellow nearing retirement. Over the course of several weeks, these two lonely people open up to each other through a series of notes, delivered back and forth in the lunch box.

There’s a sensuous undertone throughout The Lunchbox. The food glistens. Have you ever seen string beans glowing? (At one point, when a co-worker starts eating half of his food, I wanted Saajan to stab him with a fork.) And Kaur, though the movie tries to tone down her beauty with plain-Jane clothes and makeup, is as ripe and gorgeous as the food.

But it’s hard to know what to make of Khan as Saajan. Khan has the looks and dignity of a major star, but he is only in his 40s, while Saajan is supposed to be retiring after 35 years. So is Saajan supposed to be in his 50s? Then at one point, he says that his room smells like an old man’s room, so is he supposed to be older than that? It would help to be able to tell, because the whole film consists of building an audience’s desire for the two central characters to meet, and we can see, plainly, that the wife is young, probably in her early 30s. We’re rooting for something — it would help to know what exactly we’re rooting for.

Like a lot of movies, but especially foreign films, The Lunchbox has a central idea and winning characters, and it builds a compelling situation. But it never really transcends its gimmick: Wouldn’t it be interesting if two people met through a lunch box? Well, yes, it would. But what happens then? Please go back and work on the screenplay for another few weeks, and let us know.

Fortunately, The Lunchbox survives better than most films suffering from this common failing, because of its lush atmosphere, but also because it keeps the audience hoping that the story will pay off. For this reason, The Lunchbox is better as an experience than as a memory. When you’re watching it, you can still believe it might actually be heading somewhere.

In English and Hindi with English subtitles.

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