Dir. Ritesh Batra
The problem with food movies is almost exactly the same as with teen sex comedies: The filmmakers tend to allow the film’s thematic product placement (duck l’orange, let’s say, or the breasts of Amy Smart) to take precedence over any other element, including acting, narrative drive, or mise en scene. Food-porn then, becomes the point, and everything else is regulated to the shadows.
But if this film is considered food-porn, it’s of a considerably more soft-core variety. In writer/director Ritesh Batra’s hands, the shimmeringly delicious looking lunches being packed lovingly by a lonely, bored housewife into the hands of an unwitting widower in a completely different building from her distant husband, is very much a means to an end. It might well make us hungry to look at, but there’s plenty enough else here to chew on.
The housewife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), spends her days trying to appease her hard-driving and humorless husband (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), cleaning the house, taking care of their young daughter, and cooking what appears to be fabulous meals for his lunch consumption. In what must be an Indian tradition — at least in Mumbai, where the film takes place — the white-collar workers who populate the many, many offices and cubicles of the city don’t bring their lunches with them, but rather, have them hand-delivered by a series of deft handlers, who take each lunch from the apartments of their families (and/or participating restaurants), and somehow magically distribute them to their intended beneficiaries. It’s an extremely complex system (one that begs the question, wouldn’t it be easier just to brown-bag it yourself?), but one that seems to work with almost preternatural precision. That is, except for Saajan (Irrfan Khan).
Somehow, there is a mistake made with his lunch, so rather than receive the bland cauliflower from the middling take-out place near his apartment high-rise, he instead gets Ila’s carefully and lovingly made food. The first time this happens, Saajan, somewhat perplexed, takes out a single gorgeously bright looking spiced string bean and bites into it thoughtfully, surprise and delight flashing across his face for only a brief moment before returning to stern resignation.
After a couple days of this, Ila realizes what’s been happening, and writes a simple note to Saajan, explaining the mix-up and thanking him for giving her a brief, happy few days where she thought her abrasively detached husband was actually enjoying something she had prepared for him. Thus begins a peculiar sort of pen-pal exchange, with Saajan and Ila revealing ever more of themselves and their lonely lives to one another, even as she conjures up recipe after fabulous recipe.
But this is no Fried Green Tomatoes fantasy where the magic of food, like love, restores all things. Both Saajan and Ila are too entrenched in their ways to really let go of their lives, and Ila’s food, though seemingly wonderful, by itself doesn’t move Saajan to see things differently. It’s her unflinching honesty, and desire for something better, that eventually draws him in.
Batra’s film has a pleasing sort of pace, matching the grind-it-out Mumbai workday against the more thoughtful and considered measure of its main protagonists. There’s a reason they seem like such a good match, because Batra has them stand apart from the crowded din of the millions of other dedicated workers to find each other. Repeatedly, the film hammers home its aphorism: Sometimes the wrong train can take you to the right station. When these two lonely souls finally find one another, spectacular looking food is truly just the starting point.