Writer-director Ritesh Batra makes up for his contrived setup and thin plot by delivering a hearty blend of charm and genuine emotion in this winning Indian romance and urban fairy tale.
While the plot may suggest “You’ve Got Mail” (“You’ve Got Lunch Pail,” perhaps) meets “Lost in Translation,” and his gentle tone brings old-fashioned Hollywood love stories to mind, Batra keeps the flavors and the particulars Indian, and the tone a potentially trademark shade of melancholy, in his feature debut.
The setting is bustling, impersonal Mumbai, where what begins rom-com style soon goes to more surprising, sometimes magical places.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur), an unappreciated young middle-class housewife, and Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a taciturn about-to-retire widowed accountant, meet cute by not meeting at all. A slip-up by the city’s purportedly infallible dabbawallah (lunchbox delivery) system has mistakenly delivered an enticing lunch — prepared by Ila for her work-obsessed husband (Nakul Vaid) — to the desk of Saajan.
Realizing that a stranger got the lunch, the curious Ila creates another savory meal the following day and places a note alongside the food.
Saajan responds, and an ongoing communication, in which the two lonely souls open their hearts and share dreams and sorrows, ensues.
There’s just a wisp of a story here, and broadness often exceeds depth.
An overeager orphan named Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), hired to replace the retiring Saajan, comes off largely as a comic-relief presence. Ila’s frequent food-related consultations with a neighboring “auntie,” which occur via the old-fashioned social network that involves yelling out the window, lose their cuteness quickly.
But Batra doesn’t let the gimmick upstage the human ingredients, of which he provides bundles, and he impressively blends the fable with reality.
Images of Mumbai’s crowed buses and trains, and of the 120-year-old dabbawallah community at work (a phenomenon sufficiently fascinating to merit a movie of its own), are particularly memorable. A sad tinge helps offset any tendency Batra might display toward Hollywood sappiness.
Once you get past their movie-star glamour, Kaur (an established theater presence in India) and Khan (whose credits include “The Life of Pi”) are credible as two dejected spirits making each other feel alive again.
It all adds up to a rich, colorful and quietly affecting film that succeeds as romantic escapism, a survey of the Indian middle class, and a salute to old-fashioned, pre-technology-age pleasures like good cooking and handwritten letters.
Starring Nimrat Kaur, Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Nakul Vaid
Written and directed by Ritesh Batra
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes