This movie has certainly generated a fair amount of buzz, lately around the Oscar nomination bit...but I had caught the trailer a long while ago and had resolved to watch it, regardless of any sort of buzz.
So did it live up to its reputation? Yes. This is a well-crafted little film, one that leaves you with a feeling of satisfaction that I imagine you don't get with a regular masala-flick. For that alone, I am grateful.
As to the story, it involves a young married woman, Ila, anonymously exchanging letters with an older single man, via the lunchbox (intended for her husband) that lands up at his desk instead. That, in sum, is the driving force of the narrative. Set in Mumbai as it is, the backdrop is the familiar yet well-captured sense of claustrophobia of that city, further compounded by tight close-ups of the lead actors' faces.
The pace is leisurely. Each frame dwells lovingly on its subject, building a sense of loneliness and of being trapped, longing to escape. Each letter exchanged between the two brings them closer to that sense of escape, and this is all finely told. There are good performances by leads Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan (more on him later), not to mention a stellar Nawazuddin (the guy simply sparkles!) as the annoying yet endearing understudy to Irrfan's Saajan Fernandes. Also delightful was the character of "Auntie", Ila's upstairs neighbor who is never seen, only heard, a unique device for a Hindi film if I'm not mistaken.
What I would have loved to see is a deeper relationship between Ila and her daughter. Given that her husband mostly ignores her, one would then expect her to be especially close to the child. Also wonderful would have been more exploration of the lunchbox itself, or rather, the food in it; a sort of elevation of her somewhat dutiful cooking to a more personal and fulfilling part of her daily life thanks to the effect it has on Fernandes. (And I will not rant about the forced 'intermission': what is the purpose of turning the lights up in the theater for 90 seconds and stopping the movie? There wasn't time enough to even go to the bathroom...then what did they intend for us to do, exactly? Stretch, in full lighting?)
Still, these are minor niggles. The film is a bitter-sweet slice of Mumbai life that bravely wades into the territory of personal loneliness and the struggle to realize dreams, however far-fetched. Irrfan, though good, felt a little lackluster...I know his fans are legion, but to me he lacked the conviction that Nawazuddin threw into his character. Also, the themes reminded me a little of the gem Lost in Translation: young woman in a floundering marriage forms unlikely bond with older man, the rush and rattle of one of the world's largest cities, and the ending.
To sum up, more films like the Lunchbox would be welcomed with open arms (and mouths...they made each meal in said lunchbox look really good, especially as I was stuck with a pasty sandwich in my hand). Oscar controversy or not, Ritesh Batra and the 90 other producers (!) of the film, please sit up and listen!