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updated: 3/6/2014 12:48 PM

Expressive 'Lunchbox' a well-plotted romance

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  • Irrfan Khan, right, stars as a Mumbai claims adjuster in the carefully crafted romance "The Lunchbox."

    Irrfan Khan, right, stars as a Mumbai claims adjuster in the carefully crafted romance "The Lunchbox."


Not a moment goes by in Ritesh Batra's romance-of-the-heart "The Lunchbox" where we can't read the thoughts and feelings of its two main characters.

In this movie, a single look speaks paragraphs and silence answers questions. It's a subtle and infinitely restrained ode to the need for human connection and appreciation, executed with superbly nuanced performances.

In Mumbai, a middle-class housewife named Ila (Nimrat Kaur) attempts to get her busy, distant husband's attention by preparing him a gourmet-quality lunch, and sending it to his office. An error results in the lunch being delivered to the wrong person: Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a sad-eyed claims clerk about to retire after 35 years.

Impressed, Saajan writes a note to be returned to the mysterious cook. Ila, flattered, responds. Soon, they're exchanging handwritten notes every work day. They do not know each other's name.

This isn't exactly a Mumbai version of "84 Charing Cross Road." Batra's story is more complex and considered, with little revelations surprising us along the way.

Saajan, we discover, is alone after his wife's death, and Khan delicately captures the quiet loneliness of a middle-aged widower.

Ila, the mother of a little girl, smolders with needs -- both emotional and physical -- that her corporate-climbing hubby ignores.

Batra supplies welcome comic relief in Ila's Auntie, a never-seen woman upstairs who shouts blunt, earthy advice to Ila. (Think Howard's Jewish mom in "The Big Bang Theory" without the laugh-track.)

Meanwhile, Saajan becomes annoyed by a glad-handing co-worker named Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who could easily have become a corporate buffoon in a lesser movie. Here, we find out he's an orphan, and, in keeping with the movie's theme, in need of the same emotional connections as Ila.

Admittedly, this is a slender plot, but one magnificently filled out by strong, clean performances.

If Batra had used a Hollywood focus group to shape his final cut of "Lunchbox," it would have a completely different and extremely predictable ending that would earn more box office receipts.

Instead, "The Lunchbox" resonates with bittersweet realism, and the bold recognition that if some things are meant to be, then others are meant to be for only a moment.

"Lunchbox" opens at the Century Centre, Chicago and Evanston's CineArts 6. In Hindi and English. Rated PG. 105 minutes. ★ ★ ★

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