Dir/scr: Ritesh Batra. India-France-Germany. 2012. 104mins


A wistful, elegant love story played out across the streets of Mumbai, The Lunchbox is an unexpectedly aromatic charmer from first-time film-maker Ritesh Batra. Eschewing the pitfalls of what appears, on face value, to be a highly schematic set-up, Batra infuses his film with warmth and humanity, while cameraman Michael Simmonds steps up to deliver delicate visuals of modern Mumbai.

Playing out on crowded commuter trains, rickshaws and old-fashioned taxis, The Lunchbox has a strong visual sense, mercifully avoiding the colour-pop pitfalls.

It’s the subtle flavours that mark The Lunchbox out as such a treat. Although it has to battle through a difficult final act – characters required to change their minds and dash about town at the last minute in a slightly-downbeat tonal fog - this is certain to woo international arthouse crowds who have been waiting for an authentic crossover Indian title. Its foodie nature will also prove a highly marketable tool when it comes to market access.

Helped across several festival labs and development programmes (Sundance, Torino, etc) – to its benefit – The Lunchbox benefits from a highly saleable premise, focusing on the “dabawallahs” who deliver tiffin lunchboxes from housewives across Mumbai to their office worker husbands every day. Numbering 5,000, the dabawallah’s system has been studied by mathematicians and found to be practically failproof.

The Lunchbox follows that rare failure – from sad and neglected housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur), who has cooked a special meal for her husband to spice up their marriage. But the product of her “magic hands” ends up on the plate of grouchy misanthrope Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan) instead. He’s an accountant with 35 years service to the Indian Government who is on the point of retiring. When she adds a note to the next day’s lunchbox – a la 84, Charing Cross Road – the scene is set for an unlikely relationship connecting two sad strangers in two very different parts of Mumbai.

For his debut, Batra has composed a more elegant, soulful film than the premise might suggest. Poetic in parts with the odd, tiny pinch of magical realism, it’s a quietly confident production. The Lunchbox is a little more sad-eyed and soulful than you might expect at times, ruminating on matters of age and progress. The cooking theme also moves to the back seat, leading to some tonal jitters. But Batra has worked hard to earn viewers’ goodwill, and he manages to hold onto it until the final frame.

Helping him, of course, is Irrfan Khan, a major ingredient in this recipe with a warm and sympathetic performance. Also excellent is Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Shaikh, an orphan trainee who will take over Saajan’s job on his retirement.

Playing out on crowded commuter trains, rickshaws and old-fashioned taxis, The Lunchbox has a strong visual sense, mercifully avoiding the colour-pop pitfalls. Musically, too, it opts for more authentic, atmospheric sounds of the city. In fact, all technical aspects are a credit for such a small-scale production.

Production companies: Sikhya Entertainment, Dar Motion Pictures, NFDC, ROH Films, ASAP Films, Cine Mosaic

International sales: The Match Factory, www.the-matchfactory.com

Producers: Guneet Monga, Anurag Kashyap, Arun Rangachari

Cinematography: Michael Simmonds

Editor: John Lyons

Production designer: Shruti Gupte

Music: Max Richter

Main cast: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Denzil Smith