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'The Lunchbox': The UKAsian Review

British fans of Irrfan Khan, director Ritesh Batra, Indian Cinema and - perhaps more importantly - those who've never heard of Irrfan Khan, Ritesh Batra and whose idea of Indian cinema was limited to Bollywood escapism, rejoiced this weekend at the news that Batra's 'The Lunchbox' would get a theatrical release in the UK in early 2014.

Fans took to Twitter and Facebook to celebrate, adding to the near-cacophony that's accompanied the film since it was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival where it won a critics award. 

Since then, its' been hailed by more critics, received standing ovations at film festivals from Amsterdam to Toronto and has been the subject of a Twitter war after being overlooked as India's official choice for the Best Foreign Film category at the 2014 Oscars.

The "buzz" surrounding the film seems terrifically out-of-place though, for 'The Lunchbox' is, at its core, a thing of quiet beauty, resplendent in its subtlety, frail yet utterly exquisite.

The title of course refers to the remarkable 'Dabbhawallahs' community of white-capped men who keep millions of Mumbaikars productive by delivering hot home-made lunches to offices across the city every day. 

As one of the men proclaims, the system has a rate of failure of just 0.000001% and Batra's film is concerned with that solitary silver lunchbox in a million that goes astray. 

Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a beautiful, funny and dutiful Mumbai housewife subjugated by her mundane life; she's invisible to her apparently overworked husband and is a virtual prisoner in her poky apartment with just a neighbouring "Aunty-ji" for occasional company.  Ila attempts to bring back some romance into her marriage by using her culinary skills but her lunchbox is delivered to the wrong office one day. 

The fortunate and pleasantly surprised recipient is Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan), a dour and lonely insurance claims executive. 

Saajan is about to retire and goes through the same tedious motions he has done for the past 35 years.  He's a widower who shuns any form of companionship, sitting alone in a sea of chattering clerks during lunch and shooing away the neighbourhood kids.

When Ila discovers that her concoctions have been heartily devoured, nay licked clean, by the wrong person, she is silently delighted that someone has enjoyed her travails in the kitchen and encloses a note the next day, gently opening her heart to this complete stranger.

At first Saajan is stern and grave in his responses but as the notes travel back and forth, the shackles are broken and a beautiful, strange intimacy develops between the two.  The notes become the highlights of their otherwise perfunctory lives, a means of sharing their innermost thoughts and desires.

Ila is egged along by her disembodied Auntyji while Saajan is nudged out of his shell by his garrulous apprentice Aslam Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an orphan with modest ambitions and blessed with oodles of charm and optimism.

It's a story with universally recognizable themes - from unrequited love to the bewilderment of old age - that becomes uniquely Indian under the skilful direction of Ritesh Batra.

As the relationship between Ila and Saajan develops leisurely Batra uses the chaos, vibrancy, humour and prejudices of his hometown to lift the narrative.  The director spent a number of years researching for the film and it clearly shows; every scene, every word and every action has a terrific authenticity to it.

The performances by the lead actors merely add to that sense of being firmly grounded in reality.

The stunning Nimrat Kaur is a revelation, beautifully capturing the crushing defeat of a woman with an indifferent husband and scarce few choices in life.  Siddiqui is excellent as usual, at first taking his charm to the very edge of oily smarminess before winning over Saajan with his sincerity. 

Ultimately, 'The Lunchbox' belongs to Irrfan Khan whose embodiment of Saajan Fernandez is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  Khan has nothing in the way of an angry proclamation or an abrupt physical movement to work with but delivers a performance of astonishing subtlety. 

His emotions are sparse and barely discernible but deeply evocative and extraordinarily melancholic; whether it's the ever-so-slight gasp at his first taste of Ila's perfectly-cooked beans or his vacant expression as he sways and trudges home to his lonely existence.  It is the performance of a lifetime and more than worth the exorbitant price of entry and a dehydrated hotdog at your local multiplex.

'The Lunchbox' is a delightful and utterly compelling debut by Batra who leaves it to the audience to judge Saajan and Ila's fate with a bittersweet ending. 

And it proves that films that tell simple, universal stories about love and its eternal promise of salvation will resonate with audiences in India and beyond.

It's the perfect riposte to the inane escapism that dominates filmmaking in Bollywood and India in general.

- 'The Lunchbox' is in UK cinemas Spring 2014.



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