“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” runs the old cliché and the rather uninspired starting point for The Lunchbox, a slow-building, pleasingly low-key romantic dramedy set in Mumbai.
Making his feature-length debut as writer and director, Ritesh Batra throws some emotional and logistical complications at the premise. The stomach in question belongs to grouchy widower Saajan (the appealing Irrfan Khan, seen on American screens in Life of Pi), while Ila (Nimrat Kaur), the woman whose cooking sets his taste buds afire, is much younger and married.
Even more complicated is the fact that the two have never laid eyes on each other; Saajan ends up eating the food Ila lovingly prepares for her aloof husband through a mix-up in the city’s lunch courier system. Soon the two are tucking heartfelt letters into the meal containers and mulling the possibility of a face-to-face rendezvous.
Batra isn’t ambitious with the visuals, but he creates an effective, unfussy sense of urban space, both indoor (cramped apartments, crowded buses) and outdoor (even leafy residential streets seem to be swarming with playing children). He also gently pushes his story beyond its cutesy gustatory-epistolary gimmick to ponder how much — or little — room individuals have to pursue personal desires in deeply tradition-bound Indian society.
The Lunchbox proceeds modestly and with minimal pandering (there are few mouthwatering food shots and even fewer jokey one-liners) to a satisfyingly bittersweet conclusion. It also comes up with a terrific supporting character in Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), Saajan’s sweet-tempered chatterbox of a protégé at work. Theirs is the relationship worth rooting for.