‘The Lunchbox’ delivers charming tale of fated romance

Irrfan Khan plays a lonely widower who begins a courtship by lunchbox letter in
Irrfan Khan plays a lonely widower who begins a courtship by lunchbox letter in "The Lunchbox."

One of the things we learn from “The Lunchbox,” a very modern, yet also very old-fashioned, romance from India, is that sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right station.

If you have the courage to get on board.

Warm and wistful with a subtle undercurrent of melancholy, “The Lunchbox” is the story of two lonely, unhappy people who connect through a fateful mistake that’s literally one in a million. Those are the odds, according to debut writer/director Ritesh Batra, reported by Harvard mathematicians who calculated the likelihood of an error in the120-year-old system used by Mumbai’s often-illiterate dabbawallah delivery men. Who deliver, almost unfailingly, elaborated coded hot lunches each day from countless housewives to countless office-worker husbands in the city of 12 million.

But not in this case.

Ila (quietly luminous Nimrat Kaur) is a neglected wife trying to put some spice back into her marriage by sending especially delicious lunches to her withrawn husband. One day, she is thrilled when the lunchbox is returned licked-clean, but instead of her husband, it went to Saajan, (Irrfan Khan, “Life of Pi”) a reserved, uncongenial widower, who knows how to appreciate a good meal. When Ila discovers the mistake, she encloses a note in the next lunchbox, thanking him for giving her momentary happiness when she thought her husband had enjoyed it.

And so begins a daily exchange of notes that starts with curt critiques of the cooking and gradually develops into a relationship as Ila and Saajan share more and more details of their personal lives. Eventually, especially when Ila shares her conviction that her husband is having an affair, their relationship slips into something akin to courtship, a virtual romance of the type they might have struck up in an Internet chat room — but using the more personal, sensual, only recently discarded medium of hand-written letters. And Saajan starts to imagine they could start a new life together.

“The Lunchbox” is more a remembrance of the forgotten pleasure of receiving honest-to-goodness, pen-and-ink letters than it is a celebration of good food. And it’s also a memorable portrait of day-to-day life in an impossibly crowded city in which people, nonetheless, manage to be unhappily isolated. Mostly, though, it’s a thoroughly charming fable about the hope for a better future two of them glimpse when they’re connected despite astronomical odds. One that’s marred only by an inconclusive ending that’s likely to leave you wanting more.

Frustrating as that may be, though, it underscores the importance of getting on that train when you have the chance.

‘The Lunchbox’ ★★★1/2

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