Tasty film returns to the Siskel Film Center

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'The Lunchbox'

Irrfan Khan as Saajan in the film "The Lunchbox." (Michael Simmonds/Sony Pictures Classics / March 5, 2014)

"One bite of that, and he'll build you a Taj Mahal," a woman is heard hollering approvingly through an open window to her neighbor, a pretty young housewife named Ila who is in her kitchen, preparing her husband's lunch. "The Taj Mahal is a tomb, auntie," Ila responds.

Their banter is friendly, but it belies a quiet despair that has led Ila to this moment. Her marriage has lost zip, intimacy, affection. Her husband all but stares through her. But she will soon find companionship of another sort thanks to that midday meal she is cooking.

"The Lunchbox" is the debut feature from Indian writer-director Ritesh Batra, whose small but deeply affecting comedy, set in present-day middle-class Mumbai, opened earlier this year. It returns for a one-week engagement at the Siskel starting Friday and is well worth a look.

The lunchbox in question — a stackable series of steel bowls that fit one on top of the other — doesn't really have an American equivalent. When assembled, the lunchbox looks a bit like a fat thermos.

Each day, hot lunches cooked by wives (or sometimes a restaurant) are ladled into a lunchbox and brought to the desks of men who work in offices. (The movie leaves it unclear if women who work outside the home enjoy a similar setup.) The food is conveyed by dabbawallahs, an elaborate network of delivery men who ferry these meals by bike, foot and commuter train.

The dabbawallahs are renowned for their accuracy and timely deliveries. Mistakes are rare. But what if mix-up does happen?

What if, instead of Ilas's lunch reaching her husband, it lands on the desk of an introverted man named Saajan (played by Irrfan Khan, so affecting in Season 2 of HBO's "In Treatment" and more recently in "Life of Pi"), who works in the billing department of an unnamed company?

What if the food is so delicious, so carefully prepared, that he is reluctant to point out the error? What if Ila realizes what has happened, but instead of straightening things out, begins slipping notes into the folds of the Indian flat bread that accompany her meals? What if he starts writing back? There is something so wonderfully non-digital and cozy about this exchange of handwritten notes, just one a day. It is not something you often see in films in this era of iPhones.

"I was trying to make a documentary about the dabbawallahs," Batra explained when I reached him by email, "and wanted to find a character from within them to follow. So I had embedded myself with them in that process. (But) I became more attracted to the stories of the housewives who were making the food and the husbands who were receiving it, so I quit the documentary and started writing this."

An uncommon friendship soon develops between Ila and Saajan. "There are so many people in the city who only eat a banana or two for lunch," he writes to her early on. "It's cheap and it fills you." That is the sum total of his note, which he places into the empty lunchbox that is returned by the dabbawallahs to Ila's home at the end of the day, per usual. She reads his words with a befuddled look (actress Nimrat Kaur switches from anxiety to anticipation with just a subtle shift in expression), but soon their letters become longer and more revealing as they become pen pals and confidantes.

The film's underlying joke, which may not be apparent to American audiences at first glance, is that all of this happens because of that initial dabbawallah error. And the thing is, dabbawallahs don't make errors.

"They are very accurate and take a lot of pride in their job," according to Batra. "The statistic is that one in six million lunchboxes goes to the wrong address. If something is happening one in six million times, its a miracle, not a mistake, so the story to me is about the miracle of the big city that connects these lonely souls."

There's nothing quite comparable in the U.S. Even the idea of a fresh homemade lunch at the office sounds extravagant here in the States. But in the film, that aromatic lunchbox arrives each day, placed on the desk with a satisfying thunk.

What also stands out: Hindi and English are spoken interchangeably in the film. Particularly in Saajan's case. I asked Batra if that was common in Mumbai.

"Yes, Hindi and English are spoken mixed, more or less. But it was important for me that the characters speak in the language that they think in. Irrfan's character Saajan is an Indian Catholic from Bandra (a neighborhood in Mumbai) so he would think in English. Ila, on the other hand, would think in Hindi. Hence, the bilingual-ness."

The film, which was initially released in theaters less than three months ago, has made nearly $3.5 million since it opened and looks to be the highest-grossing foreign film in the U.S. this year so far.

"The Lunchbox" screens Friday through Thursday at the Siskel. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/lunchbox-dabba.

Art Shay doc

In an essay posted on Chicagoist.com about the documentary "Finding Vivian Maier," Art Shay, whose long career as a photographer in Chicago includes his work with Nelson Algren (as well as national publications such as Time magazine and Sports Illustrated) reports that a documentary crew is making a film about his work.

"As a photographer, four years older than poor deceased Vivian (who had no published pictures), I'm 30,000 published pictures ahead of her," he writes. "I mean every few years a dead photographer pops up to compete with me. So being a competitive person, I'm just now working with a seasoned documentary crew, aiming at Sundance, on a film about my own verrk and colorful career. They've photographed me at three openings so far, and dragged me back to my boyhood home in the Bronx, where my kid brothers pointed out to the camera the exact place I was batting in the '40s when I hit the very first tennis ball used in stickball, 300 feet away and five stories high, onto the roof of James Monroe High School." For the latest info on Shay's projects, go to indianhillmediaworks.typepad.com/artshay.

Early experimental filmmaker

The documentary "Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton" tells the story of Broughton, an independent filmmaker who helped launch the Beat movement and who was once involved with the film critic Pauline Kael, with whom he had a daughter. The film's directors "construct a lively, entertaining collage," according to the Hollywood Reporter, "interspersing animated bits, excerpts from Broughton's diaries, poems, and experimental films, along with interviews with various people who knew him best, including his wife, son, and long-time male lover." It screens at Facets this week, with co-director Dawn Logsdon in Chicago to attend screenings on Friday and Thursday. Go to facets.org.

nmetz@tribune.com

@NinaMetzNews

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