Directed by Ritesh Batra

Starring Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur

Rated PG

Playing at Angelika, Lincoln Plaza

 

The epistolary romance carries with it certain dramatic benefits, chiefly the poignancy inherent in the fact that the lovers at the center of the story are separated from each other. "The Lunchbox," directed by Ritesh Batra, raises the stakes. The letter-writing pair at the center of his film hasn't even met.

The great Irrfan Khan plays Saajan, a widowed claims clerk aging into his golden years, who plans an early retirement in a bid to escape his sad, lonely life. Nimrat Kaur is the equally lonely Ila, a housewife with a husband who barely acknowledges her. One day, the lunch she intended to make for her husband is mistakenly delivered to Saajan.

A correspondence begins and Ila keeps cooking for Saajan, day after day. Their written bond, carried out through letters placed in the lunchbox, develops from expressions of appreciation over the great, carefully-made delicacies to a deeper place, as the characters share their thoughts on happiness, sadness, memory, life's greater meaning and the nature of 21st century existence in the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai.

It's a sweet, gentle movie comprised of long takes and thoughtful observations, as Batra emphasizes the parallels between his characters by meticulously cross-cutting between their stories and keeping the camera trained on their faces. He benefits greatly from the expansive, sympathetic performances from his two leads, work that blends desperation and dignity, the joys of connection and the isolation of anonymity into a collective portrait of what it means to be alive.

The movie is plugged into its setting, addressing concerns regarding class issues and spousal neglect that are both distinct to India and thoroughly universal. Some of its most heartrending moments take place on crowded buses and trains, and in the backseat of a car, observing as the world passes by. Few recent movies have made the act of commuting more cinematic and affecting.

These moments get at the heart of what "The Lunchbox" is all about. What is life, after all, but a series of transitions from one place to the next, made brighter only by the light at the end of each journey? At the beginning of the picture, Saajan is an unhappy traveler, crammed into his bus without room to stand. By the end, he's able to smile again.