(director/writer:Ritesh Batra; cinematographer: Michael Simmonds; editor: John F. Lyons; music: Max Richter; cast: Nimrat Kaur  (Ila), Irrfan Khan (Saajan), Lulette Debey (Ila’s Mother), Yashvi Paneet Nagar (Yashvi), Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Aslam Shaikh), Nakal Vaid (Ila’s Husband), Bharati Achrekar (Mrs. Deshpande), Denzil Smith (Mr. Shroff); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: PG; producers;Arun Rangachari, Anurag Kashyap, Guneet Monga: Sony Pictures Classics; 2013-India-in Hindi with English subtitles)

“Could have used a little more spice.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A gentle romantic crowd pleasing wryly comical old-school Hollywood type of drama with universal appeal. It’s about dealing with loneliness in an overcrowded Mumbai, that’s efficiently written and directed by India’s Ritesh Batra  (“Photograph”/”The Sense of an Ending”), in his debut film. Though it was fine, it could have used a little more spice. It was shot on location in a bustling Mumbai, giving it an authentic atmosphere.

Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a neglected housewife with an estranged husband she hopes to woo back. Mr. Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is a widowed office worker nearing retirement after 35 years of being an efficient accountant.

The housewife cooks lunches for her husband that are delivered to him by white-jacketed couriers (called dabbawallas), through Mumbai’s celebrated meal-delivery system.

The lunches Ila prepares are carefully prepared with the advice of an unseen “Auntie” in the apartment upstairs. But because of a rare service error in the dabbawalla network, the stackable stainless steel dishes of her food arrive on Mr. Fernandes’s desk instead of on her husband’s. His brief notes placed in the lunchbox either compliment or criticize her meals, and their exchange of notes quickly move on from merely pleasantries to the sharing of confidences.

The stand-offish Mr. Fernandes is befriended at the workplace by the energetic and pesty Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), his designated young replacement. Shaikh’s an orphan from the poorer class striving to be middle class like Mr. Fernandez (and, for that matter, like Ila).

The lighthearted affair has a cute premise that was inspired by
Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful romantic Depression comedy, “The Shop Around the Corner,” from 1940, but comes nowhere near pulling off the famous Lubitsch Touch with the same success even if it also delivers a message of hope for the young starting their careers and the middle-agers who might have hit a bump in their journey and now are revitalized by reaching out to each other.

The main characters are likable, easy to root for and old fashioned, and the acting is wonderful and soulful. But the film has too many flat moments and too much of a predictable arc it can’t overcome no matter how nourishing it is.

The Lunchbox