The way to a man's heart is through his stomach, so they say. And so says writer-director Ritesh Batra in his debut feature "The Lunchbox." Though considerably more understated than a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie, one might call this wry-at-times romantic drama "You've Got Lunch."
That's because the story hinges, so to speak, on Mumbai's remarkable "lunchbox service," which accidentally becomes a vehicle for letters passed between a dissatisfied housewife and a quiet-desperation widower. Fretful lla (Nimrat Kaur) has a young child and a preoccupied, neglectful husband (Nakul Vaid), for whom she cooks a special lunch. But in a rare glitch of the system, the lunchpail winds up in the hands of the usually restaurant-fed Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a 35-year veteran government office worker whose early retirement will kick in by the end of the month.
Though he's told his "golden years are about to start," Saajan doesn't seem convinced. He drags his feet in training his eager-beaver replacement Aslam Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and now that the lonely, companionless Saajan is pulling a daily home-cooked meal from a thoughtful young woman, he begins to dread his last day all the more. Meanwhile, Ila appreciates being appreciated, quickly developing a curiosity about her witty new pen pal. Could this unlikely pair beat the odds to become a couple? And should they, given their age difference, and the potential to break Ila's home?
Batra's humble but beguiling film has an eye for the detail of Mumbai life (including the sad businessman's trend of two-banana lunches, bucked by the glorious alternative of the hot-lunch service) and a deep appreciation for the dual pleasures taken in making and consuming a good meal. Of course, "The Lunchbox" digs deeper than that, with a humanistic interest in both those darkest hours alone and the sweetest connections between people.
Kaur is excellent as the unsure but intrigued Ila, and kudos too to Siddiqui, who conspires with Batra to turn what comes on like a stereotype into a surprisingly rich character, another unlikely catalyst for Saajan's renewed yearning for meaningful personal connections. But the picture belongs to world-class actor Khan. I'll wager right now that there won't be a better performance all year, though it's not the type to win awards.
Khan is too subtle for that, carrying Saajan with a furtive alertness embodying how he knows he's getting away with something: rediscovering life just when he thought he'd be packing it in. The actor's rare gift of low-key naturalism keeps the picture fascinating even when nothing much, on paper, would seem to be transpiring. In keeping with the slow-food trend of recent years, "The Lunchbox" takes its sweet time to get this small-scale drama -- with its big emotional stakes -- just right.
Rated PG for thematic material and smoking. One hour, 44 minutes