Sleepless in Mumbai

It’s impossible for me to assess my attributes as a film critic, though I can say I’ve mentored with some of the best. My dear friend Richard Jameson, former editor of Film Comment, has taught me more about movies, and how to watch and discuss them, than the thousands of pages I’ve read over the years. I call Richard, fondly, the populist snob: a man of Apollonian discernment who nonetheless finds lasting quality in more mainstream stuff, and who can discuss Spielberg with as much acuity and energetic acumen as he can Fassbender or Godard.

During our years of working together at Seattle’s Pacific Publishing, I collected a series of Richardisms — one-line corkers by which he’d sum up his feelings about this or that movie he’d just seen. One of my favorites, always delivered in a mock-nasally tone, is what Richard says about films that hit the dartboard but miss the bull’s-eye: “It’s a perfectly pleasant little movie.” This phrase ran through my head after watching The Lunchbox, a perfectly pleasant little movie about two unhappy strangers who fall in love at a distance.

Directed by Ritesh Batra, The Lunchbox tells the story of Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widowed government clerk listlessly approaching retirement, and Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young wife whose husband (Nakul Vaid) barely notices her. Attempting to win back his affection, Ila prepares for her husband exquisite meals, each delivered by Mumbai’s dabbawalas, bicycle messengers who peddle hot food in stacked tins to workplaces around the teeming city. Of course, Ila’s lunches, and the notes she includes with them, are brought to Saajan by accident, and the rest — unless you’ve never seen a romantic comedy — is predictable history.

It’s all pleasant enough. The leads are lovely, especially Khan, who proves himself a master of emotional understatement. The film has something to say about alienation, romantic rejuvenation and the vagaries of human connection. Yes, The Lunchbox warmed my heart — warmed it moderately, like a once-hot meal biked over great distances across much-traveled streets. Mostly, though, it just made me hungry.

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