Since I love great meals, there’s a special place in my heart (and in my stomach) for movies that focus on the preparing, serving, and savoring of food. Of course Babette’s Feast leads the list, along with Big Night, and (for those of us who are passionate about Chinese cooking) Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman. Fans of dessert (and who isn’t?), agree that Chocolat is simply scrumptious. Ratatouille may be a work of animation, but it also effectively conveys the joy of cooking, as well as the joy of eating. As does, in its own way, Julie & Julia. Not to mention that wacky Japanese “noodle western,” Tampopo.
India’s The Lunchbox, a major international hit at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is about food too: about the effort that goes into cooking and the pleasure that comes from tasting. I must admit that, although I love the spicy cuisine of the Indian subcontinent, the dishes prepared in this film are not things of beauty. There’s no sense of a behind-the-scenes food stylist making every ingredient look like a precious jewel and the assembled components as gorgeous as a High Baroque still-life. But, of course, this isn’t some Bollywood fantasy, with a bevy of beautiful women singing and dancing their way through a pristine kitchen set. It’s a small-scale realistic drama, though one that takes off from Mumbai’s complex dabbawallah system, in which hot lunches are delivered from the hands of their makers to the desks of cross-town office workers who crave a lovingly prepared hot meal at midday.
The system is apparently a model of efficiency, but this film (by debuting writer-director Ritesh Batra) hinges on the results of a bureaucratic error. Ila, a young wife trying to hold onto her husband’s heart by way of his stomach sends off a lunch that ends up in the hands of a lonely widower working at a soulless clerical job. Saajan Fernandez is played by Irrfan Khan, memorable from both Slumdog Millionaire and The Life of Pi, where he had the brief but essential role of the title character as an adult. Here he’s a dour low-level bureaucrat, quick to find fault with others’ imperfections, but not immune to home-made curries and dals spooned into tidy little metal dishes. He scribbles a note to the unknown cook – a complaint about salt – and a correspondence begins. That, in a nutshell, is the movie. Following the great old tradition of epistolary novels and such films as The Shop Around the Corner and 88 Charing Cross Road, this is an epistolary movie, in which the main characters only cross paths when they put pen to paper. (No text messages or “You’ve Got Mail” here.) Which is not to say that nothing happens. The two principals evolve a good deal from start to finish. As befits a romantic drama with realistic roots, there’s no pie-in-the-sky (or even “Pi in the Sky”) ending. But rest assured that the plot has its share of surprises and suspense.
The smaller roles add both poignancy and humor. They include Ila’s downtrodden mother, and Saajan’s unrelentingly cheerful young business colleague, a pain-in-the-neck fellow who contributes in his own way to the leading man’s character development. Then there’s the unseen but often heard “Auntie” who advises Ila on her cooking skills from her upstairs flat, and sometimes sends down Care packages via a nifty suspended basket. Also a character of sorts is grubby, bustling, bursting-at-the-seams Mumbai, which is apparently a splendid place to do lunch.
Which reminds me -- it's time to eat!