Sleeper Hindi hit The Lunchbox steers a crowd-pleasing course between Bollywood and Satyajit Ray 

The Haat Around the Corner

The Haat Around the Corner

When they haven't been guided by foreigners' work — from great films by Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini to poverty porn like Born Into Brothels and Slumdog Millionaire — American moviegoers have taken their visions of India from Bollywood and the austere art cinema of Satyajit Ray (though in recent years, filmmakers doing the contemporary equivalent of Ray's work haven't had access to American arthouse screens). The characters in Ritesh Batra's gentle character study The Lunchbox may love the splashy excess of Hindi cinema, but in his first feature the director dodges both Bollywood and the Ray tradition; his film owes more to Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner than to Pather Panchali.

The characters in Batra's romantic comedy-drama, a surprise box-office success, are middle-class urbanites. While some of their concerns are specific to a rapidly expanding India, and some aspects of their lives don't have any precise equivalents in the U.S. — the plot hinges upon food delivery services that can be hired to bring office workers a daily lunch from a doting wife — there's no doubt The Lunchbox has made an international splash because it's instantly recognizable, even familiar. But that's not always a bad sign: The commonplace foibles of its characters supply much of its poignance.

In the opening scene, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) puts a home-cooked meal into a kind of thermos for delivery to her husband's office. She gives it to a bike messenger, who takes it on a roundabout route. But something goes awry. It winds up on the desk of middle-aged Mr. Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), who's preparing for retirement and is planning to train his young replacement, Aslam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Mr. Fernandes loves her food, however, and he becomes curious about the woman behind it. She writes a note to him the next day; the two are soon keeping up a regular correspondence and even flirting in epistolary form. 

The three main characters in The Lunchbox are archetypes. Ila is a loving housewife betrayed by her husband and willing to look elsewhere for a little romance; Fernandes is bitter, aging rapidly and has given up on finding love again after the passing of his wife, while Aslam initially appears obnoxious but grows lovable once we (and Fernandes) get to know him. This may sound like unpromising sitcom material, but The Lunchbox digs deeper, particularly in Fernandes' case. The character remains more than a little melancholy and misanthropic through the end, passing up his chances for romance with Ila out of fear of aging. Khan creates a touching depiction of loneliness and the feeling of growing old without a family.

A subtle dissatisfaction with contemporary India runs through The Lunchbox. By its end, Ila and Fernandes dream of finding happiness away from materialism in Bhutan, and the film keeps the question of whether they'll ever meet up open as long as it possibly can. In the 1960s and '70s, hippies looked to India for a more spiritual alternative to the capitalist Western grind. According to The Lunchbox, those who've benefited from the expansion of India's middle-class are now looking for an escape route themselves. That's a sad takeaway from a movie that in most other regards is a crowd-pleaser.



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