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Unorthodox love story filled with delicious details

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Nimrat Kaur plays Ila, an unhappy Mumbai housewife.

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Nimrat Kaur plays Ila, an unhappy Mumbai housewife.

If you decide you're going to see this Mumbai-set drama, the best advice you can get is to have dinner beforehand.

As long as the food is Indian.

Food figures prominently in this film, which is centred on an unhappy housewife. Ila (Nimrat Kaur, an appropriately melancholy beauty) senses she is losing the interest of her remote husband. She fixes on a solution of sending him especially delicious meals for his lunch.

An explanation is necessary here: the story involves Mumbai's intricate system of food delivery, whereby hot home cooking is delivered to offices and workplaces via some 5,000 delivery people called dabbawallahs. The process seems haphazard, but it is fiendishly efficient. It is said that only one in four million deliveries goes wrong.

This movie is about one of those erroneous deliveries. Instead of being sent to her husband, the food is delivered to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widowed insurance claims adjuster on the cusp of retirement.

Reputed as a sour man given to kicking cats, Saajan initially assumes the restaurant that usually delivers his food has improved their culinary game. But Ila realizes, by the way the food has been thoroughly consumed, that the delivery has gone amiss. She initiates a correspondence by mail that sees both these unhappy people transforming themselves.

Infrequent visitors to Indian cinema are advised the film is nothing like a Bollywood musical melodrama. Writer-director Ritesh Batra works more in the humanist template of Satyajit Ray, offering up a very human story against a backdrop of crowded streets, trains, shabby offices and tiny apartments.

Much of the film's delight is in its gentle diversions. Ila gets relationship advice from an unseen "Auntie" who lives upstairs, caring for her semi-comatose husband. Saajan, a loner at work, is moved to drop his guard long enough to befriend his obsequious replacement Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who proves to be more than he seems.

Through some wonderful editing, Batra weaves in lovely detail that enriches and strengthens this simple tale: A song heard in a Bollywood movie in one shot is sung by beggar children on a train in the next shot. Again and again, Batra makes connections suggestive of individual threads weaving a large, rich, funny tragic tableau.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I need an infusion of aloo gobi masala and naan bread, stat.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 2, 2014 D6

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