Of the two most recommended movies opening in area theaters today, “Nymph()maniac: Vol. 1” is the one to see if you want to be challenged with images of sex and degradation, sin and redemption — the death of love and the extremes of the flesh.
“The Lunchbox” is for everyone else.
A humanist fable from India, the film is actually a romance in the classic tradition, a “Brief Encounter” transposed to the rhythms and flavors of modern-day Mumbai. An epistolary romance, no less, about strangers who fall in love by way of letters. How retro! And, in the hands of writer-director Ritesh Batra and stars Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, how unexpectedly moving.
Khan you know as the grown-up Pi in “Life of Pi,” the father in “The Namesake,” the police interrogator of “Slumdog Millionaire.” He’s a crossover Bollywood star graced with a sense of stillness and large, unblinking eyes that appear to have seen a lot. In “The Lunchbox,” he plays Saajan, a government claims processor nearing retirement after 35 years behind a desk. A widower and a loner, he has been in suspended animation for some time, but when he opens his tin lunchbox one day, it’s as though his expression had changed from black-and-white to color.
The lunch isn’t his. It was delivered to him by mistake by one of the dabbawallas, the thousand-strong army of men who specialize in ferrying hot lunches from wives at home to husbands at work. The system, more than a century old, is insanely complex and — so we’re told — the subject of a recent Harvard Business School study. Parts of “The Lunchbox” double as ethnographic documentary, and they’re marvelous to watch, Bitra’s camera following the lunchboxes as they crisscross Mumbai by bicycle, bus, train, unerringly ending up at the right desk at the right moment.
Except this lunchbox didn’t. The meal inside was prepared by Ila (Kaur), the lonely wife of a young businessman (Nakul Vaid) more involved with his cellphone than with her. On the advice of the old “Auntie” (Bharati Achrekar) upstairs — heard but never seen — Ila concocts a meal whose spices are calculated to reignite passion. This they do, only not as expected. The mis-deliveries continue, and Saajan and Ila start exchanging notes via the lunchbox. Initially tart, then inquisitive, the letters begin blooming with inner lives revealed.
The rest I’ll leave you to discover, which you should. “The Lunchbox” isn’t an example of bravura moviemaking or cutting-edge style but simply a tale told with intelligence, restraint, and respect. It has its predictabilities — does Saajan have to be a Scrooge to the ball-playing kids in his neighborhood? — as well as its surprises. The secondary character of Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a young man waiting in line for the hero’s job, subtly transforms from an over-eager pill to a trusted confidant and friend, just one example of the film’s quiet breadth of vision.
In fact, “The Lunchbox” doubles as an allegorical portrait of Mumbai in the midst of profound change. Bitra never raises the issue directly, but it’s no accident that his three main characters are Christian (Saajan), Hindu (Ila), and Muslim (Shaikh), nor that the loneliness that unites them is far more than the sum of their differences. There’s an unforced but powerful feminist message as well in the film’s vision of daughters bearing witness: Ila to her mother’s (Lillete Dubey) coping with an autocratic husband (Nasir Khan) on his death bed, Ila’s little daughter (Yashvi Puneet Nagar) to her mother’s struggle to break free (or not) of custom and propriety. In its small, satisfying way, this is a revolutionary film. It just understands that some revolutions begin with lunch.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .