It's true that one can find love in the unlikeliest of places. But in a lunch box?
Perhaps only in Mumbai, and maybe only in the movies. After all, if a child of Mumbai's streets can strike it rich on a TV show (Slumdog Millionaire), why can't an aging insurance man find love in a lunchbox?
And so it goes in The Lunchbox, now showing in limited U.S. release after lighting up the box office and the critics in India. "One of the best films to come out of India in a long time," raved one critic in Mumbai. Another called it "delicious and delightful," concluding, "The delectable taste of this lunchbox remains in your mouth much after you've left the theatre. Go for it!"
The Lunchbox was so well loved that a national scandal ensued when it was not selected to represent India in the foreign film category at the Academy Awards. (India selected The Good Road instead, but it was not one of the final five nominees.)
Now, back to that unlikely premise. Sajaan, a forlorn widower nearing retirement, is merely going through the dull motions in his last days on the job. Work is a drag, the commute is a drag, homelife is a drag (literally: he's a smoker), and even his daily lunch at the office is a . . . But wait, what's this? When he opens his lunchbox one day, he finds an extraordinary meal, full of zesty flavors, far exceeding his usual grub.
For years, Sajaan (Irrfan Khan, The Amazing Spider Man, The Life of Pi, and over 30 Bollywood films) has had his lunchbox filled and delivered by a local food vendor, whose fare did little for the taste buds. And then, suddenly, everything changed.
Which brings us to . . .
Ila, a lonely housewife who is also going through the motions, but is determined to spice up her loveless marriage. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) believes that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, so she goes all Food Network in preparing her husband's lunches, hoping to arouse, well, something.
Which brings us to . . .
Mumbai's dabbawallahs, a community of 5,000 lunchbox deliverymen who distribute some 1 million meals per day—using trains, buses, scooters, bikes, and their own fleet feet—to workers throughout the city. Typically, they pick up the lunchbox at the worker's residence in the late morning—freshly made by a spouse, and still piping hot—and, once the food is eaten, return the lunchboxes to their homes in the afternoon.
I was in Mumbai recently, and it's amazing that such a system can work at all, given the logistics. It's the world's fifth most populous city, with 12.5 million people. It's also one of the most densely populated, with almost 21,000 people per square kilometer—twice as dense as New York, four times as dense as London. Mumbai is like a human beehive—practically wall-to-wall people, jostling with one another, literally shoulder-to-shoulder, just to get from here to there. And the traffic is a chaotic mess!