A SOULFUL PERFORMANCE BY IRRFAN KHAN SERVES AS THE KEY INGREDIENT IN THIS MARVELOUS DISH
BY T.T. STERN-ENZI
Rating: PG-13, Grade: A
Cases of mistaken identity can certainly advance a plot, but rarely do these artificially imposed manipulative elements create an organic or believable situation that approximates the randomness of daily life. But when skillfully employed, as in the case of the feature debut from writer-director Ritesh Batra, “The Lunchbox,” such a silly contrivance can recall the everlasting reflective hold a literary premise can inspire. The best stories on the page are the ones that don’t feel beholden to carefully scripted movement from one scene to the next, and so on until arcs are established and neat, tidy conclusions can be drawn. No, what a great story does is realize life cannot be contained in such linear thinking, and so, it imitates this aspect of life and living, tracking what happens when characters collide in this living breathing space.
Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a widower on the verge of retiring after a long career working in the claims department of an unnamed firm in Mumbai, finds himself on the receiving end of a lunchbox assumed to have been prepared by a restaurant service near his home. In fact, the specially prepared meals have come, thanks to a delivery mix-up, from an unhappy wife (Nimrat Kaur) named Ila, who is on the verge of discovering her husband is cheating on her. Ila, working on the advice of her unseen auntie (Bharati Achrekar) living in the apartment above her, injects love and little pieces of her soul into each meal, hoping to rekindle the spark of passion that has been extinguished in her relationship.
Instead, she ends up sharing her fading lust for life with Saajan, who is also in the midst of a dawning crisis. What will he do as his work life ends and this new chapter begins? He has no one to take care of or to spend time with, except, it seems for his work replacement (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the eager young man he must train.
For a first-timer, Batra displays a shrewd sense when it comes to trusting in the humanity of his characters versus the gimmick and the broad comedic potential so many other filmmakers would have leaned on. What starts out as an evolving engagement between Saajan and Ila – who figures out quickly that Saajan, rather than her husband, is receiving the lunches and begins a heartfelt old-fashioned correspondence with him – transforms even further by exploring the bond between Saajan and his mentee.
Of course, all of this hinges on Khan, in particular, who shines seemingly from deep within, as he dares to allow the sensual pleasures of these meals to awaken his long-buried dreams for the rest of his days. The daily delivery of the meals, and their impact on Saajan, form the appetizer for the hearty emotional feasts that appeal to all of the senses.
Oh, how I long to share a meal with Khan. He has drawn attention, quietly, starting with Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay,” but has been unforgettable – imagine “Slumdog Millionaire” or “Life of Pi” without him – as larger roles have come his way. But I would want, moreso than a phone interview, the opportunity to break bread, this simple communion would take on the complexities I’ve been blathering on about, and I would wish to do so without daring to exert any control over the situation. Meaning, I would want to forgo the notion of asking questions of the man as we, silently, prepared our plates.
The true pleasure, much as it does in “The Lunchbox,” would come from allowing the conversation to follow its own directives, to take and create a life of its own. The food, how it engaged the senses, would take center stage, prompting and encouraging us, as necessary. Maybe what I’m saying even more is I would want Batra to oversee this meal time interview, allowing me to simply play a minor role in the real exchange, the presentation of Irrfan Khan.