Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is a widower who is about to retire from his job as an accountant. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a young wife seeking her husband's (Nakul Vaid)'s attention and looking for ways to put romance back into her marriage, one of which is to cook delicious food for him. Through a rare mix-up of the famous "dabbawalas" (a complicated system that picks up and delivers lunches from restaurants or homes to people at work) of Mumbai, the lunchbox Ila prepares for her husband gets delivered, instead, to Saajan. Ila eventually realizes the mistake and with the advice of her neighbour aunty (Bharti Achrekar – voice only) living in the apartment above her, writes a letter to Saajan about the mix up and places it in the lunchbox (along with her husband's favorite meal) the next day.
An exchange of the messages sent back and forth with the lunches ignites a friendship between the two, as they share memories and events of their own individual lives. At work, Saajan is tasked with training his replacement, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an orphan whose incompetence initially annoys Saajan, who is already socially distant since his wife's death. Saajan and Shaikh gradually get to know each other better and strike a close friendship as well. At one point, Saajan saves Shaikh's job by covering for his blatant mistakes on pay orders and he also becomes his best man at his wedding with Mehrunissa (Shruti Bapna).
At home, Ila finds out that her husband is having an affair and she begins to give up hope on her marriage. In one of the lunchbox letters, she suggests moving to Bhutan where the cost of living is much less than in India. Saajan writes back suggesting that the two move there together. Ila then offers to meet in person at a popular food joint, but at the appointed time Saajan doesn't turn up. Upon receiving an empty lunchbox the next day, Saajan writes back to the dejected Ila and apologizes, saying that he did arrive and saw her from a distance but couldn't approach her. He explains how young and beautiful she looked, while surmising that he is too old for her and advising her to move on.
Some time later, Ila's father, battling with lung cancer, dies in her mother's care. After her mother (Lilette Dubey) confesses how unhappy her marriage was, Ila decides to search for Saajan, but then learns from Shaikh that he has already retired and headed to Nasik. She writes a last farewell message to Saajan announcing that she has decided to leave her husband and move to Bhutan with her young daughter.
Meanwhile, Saajan changes his mind en route to Nasik, returning to Mumbai and going in search of Ila – who is last seen at home waiting for her daughter to return from school – as he gets help from the same dabbawala who regularly picked up and delivered the eponymous lunchbox.Irrfan Khan as Saajan Fernandes
Nimrat Kaur as Ila
Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Shaikh
Denzil Smith as Mr. Shroff, Saajan's office boss
Bharati Achrekar (voice only) as Mrs. Deshpande, Ila's neighbour
Nakul Vaid as Rajiv, Ila's husband
Yashvi Puneet Nagar as Yashvi
Lillete Dubey as Ila's mother
Shruti Bapna as Mehrunissa, Shaikh's wife
Nasir Khan as Ila's father
Lokesh Rai as Duke's owner
Sadashiv Kondaji Pokarkar as Dabbawala at Ila's house
Aarti Rathod as Saajan's neighbour
Rishi Raj More as Ila's brother
Krishna Bai as toothless woman in local train
Santosh Kumar Chaurasia as autorickshaw driver
Swapnil Shrirao as Duke's waiter
Baburao Sankpal as Dabbawala at Saajan's office
Mahesh Mahadev Salavkar as office peon
Abhijit Khanvilkar as young man in local train
Ritesh Batra, who had made short films, The Morning Ritual, Gareeb Nawaz ki Taxi and Cafe Regular, Cairo, started researching for a documentary on the famous Lunchbox delivery system of Mumbai, dabbawala, known for their efficiency, however after spending a week with them in 2007, he got to know of many interesting personal stories they would overhear while waiting outside an apartment. This idea gave birth to the idea of the film, and instead of making the documentary he began writing a film script. In time the film became joint production between Sikhya Entertainment, DAR motion pictures, National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC), India, ROH Films, Germany, ASAP Films, France and the Cine Mosaic, US of Lydia Dean Pilcher who previously produced films like, The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) and The Namesake (2007), and Germany's Match Factory became its international sales agent.
Batra completed the first draft of the screenplay in 2011. He was assisted by Rutvik Oza. It went on to win an Honorable Jury Mention at the 2012 Cinemart at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Thereafter the project was part of the Talent Project Market of Berlin International Film Festival and was mentored at the screenwriter's lab (Torino Film Lab) at the Torino Film Festival. The character of Ila played by Nimrat Kaur, six months prior to the shooting, and the character played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui was further developed and improvised during shooting.
Irrfan Khan liked the script of the film and the concept of his character, not speaking much but talking through notes. After seeing Batra's short film and a couple of meetings he agreed to act in the film. Batra wanted to work with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, another principal character of the film, for a long time. For the female lead, auditions were conducted, wherein Nimrat Kaur was selected. Kaur had extensive experience at the Mumbai theatre and worked in films like Peddlers. Some of the dabbawalas who the director befriended while researching for the film, also were cast in minor roles.
The film was shot in 2012 in Mumbai at a budget of ₹220 million. Prior to the filming, the cast rehearsed for six months. It was shot using the Arri Alexa digital film camera. Many of the scenes were logistically broken down to make way for last minute location changes. According to Ritesh Batra, scenes on the train involved the use of only one compartment, and even included actual local commuters when needed.
Principal photography lasted 29 days, with a majority of the film's scenes done in three weeks. Afterwards, footage taken in a documentary manner were shot. Mumbai's famous dabbawalas were provided actual lunchboxes to deliver, and followed by a four-member film crew, which filmed the process in documentary style.
The film was screened on 19 May 2013 as a part of the International Critics' Week at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation and positive reviews. and won the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award also known as Grand Rail d'Or. Variety called it "a notable debut from tyro helmer-scripter Ritesh Batra", for creating a film with "crossover appeal of Monsoon Wedding", and also praised acting of Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur.
Thereafter, Sony Pictures Classics picked up all North American rights for distribution.
In India, this film was released in more than 400 screens on 20 September 2013.
The Lunchbox grossed ₹71 million in its first weekend of release in India, and ₹110 million in its first week. The film continued to gross significant amounts over the next few weeks, earning over ₹200 million in the first three weeks and another estimated ₹40–50 lakhs on its fourth weekend.
In the United States, The Lunchbox grossed $4.23 million, and was 2014's third highest grossing foreign film behind Cantinflas and P.K.. As of 28 May 2014, the film's worldwide collection stands at ₹84.92 crore (US$13 million). The film collected around ₹100.85 crore (US$16 million) worldwide in its lifetime run.
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a score of 96% based on reviews from 97 critics, with an average rating of 7.7/10. The site's consensus is: "Warm, affectionate, and sweet but not cloying, The Lunchbox is a clever crowd-pleaser from first-time director Ritesh Batra".
Critic Rajeev Masand of CNN-IBN gave a rating of 5/5 to the film stating, "The greatest love stories are the ones that make you root for the protagonists to come together, despite their destinies. This film illustrates how love transforms the unlikeliest of people." Pratim D. Gupta of The Telegraph gave two thumbs up to The Lunchbox calling it "as much a moving and muted love story as it is an evocative portrayal of loneliness." Taran Adarsh of Bollywood Hungama gave the movie a 4/5 stating, "A well-told old-fashioned romance, The Lunchbox gracefully unknots the trials, tribulations, fears and hopes of everyday people sans the glamour that the city of Mumbai has become synonymous with." Karan Anshuman of the MumbaiMirror also went with a perfect score of 5/5 saying the film was, "one of the best films to come out of India in a long time."
Raja Sen of Rediff.com praised the film further, giving another perfect score of 5/5 and offered particular compliments to the director Ritesh Batra, stating "Batra, who has also written The Lunchbox, has allowed his smashing actors tremendous room to improvise, all the while himself sketching in nuanced details about the city, its food-ferriers, and the many disparities Mumbai is crammed with." Filmmaker/critic Khalid Mohammed of the Deccan Chronicle said "What stays in the mind at the end of 'The Lunchbox' is pretty much what stays in mind at the end of a memorable set by jazzmen – not their lapses but the heights they scale." Aditya Grover of YouthTimes gave it 4/5 stars and said, "The Lunchbox is delicious and delightful! If you're in the mood to witness genuinely moving cinema, you're in for a treat. The delectable taste of this lunchbox remains in your mouth much after you've left the theatre. Go for it!" Suparna Sharma of The Asian Age gave it 4 out of 5 stars and said: "The Lunchbox is a gently pulsating sweet-sad story of loneliness and love, of wilting spirits finding water again. There are three women in three marriages in this film, of which two are ailing. The third one is over, almost, only the last rites haven't been performed. There are two men in the film – one who has lived a full life and is getting ready to quietly slip off the face of the earth; the other is eager to begin… What's both shocking and soothing is what the film shows us — that it takes very little for a soul to come back to life. Mostly, just a hint of hope will do."
Trisha Gupta in the Sunday Guardian wrote "The Lunchbox is a lovely little film. But it does tick all the boxes that might appeal to festival audiences: quaint Asian urbanism (Mumbai trains, dabba delivery), Indian home-cooking, romance. It provides local colour, without being demandingly untranslatable." In a less positive review for the Chicago Reader, J.R. Jones criticized the film's premise as a gimmick and its purported use of "irritating comic foil" in reference to Nawazuddin Siddiqui's and Bharati Achrekar's characters as Shaikh and Mrs. Deshpande, respectively.
The Lunchbox was considered by many people throughout the year to be a lock as India's selection for the 86th Academy Awards Best Foreign Film Category, with many critics unanimously praising it and voting for it to be the representative film. Celebrity director Karan Johar also put his support behind the film saying "All kinds of audience can connect with it and yet within the parameters of love story it is completely unusual. You feel all the love in the world for the protagonists and the unusual aspect of it is they haven't met."
However, the selection committee of the Film Federation of India (FFI) deliberated on 17 September 2013 and decided to send the Gujarati film The Good Road instead. This decision sparked outrage from many supporters of The Lunchbox, including its cast and crew. The film's producer Anurag Kashyap quickly took to Twitter and expressed his disgust, saying "I don't know who the Federation is, but it goes to show the complete lack of understanding to make films that can travel across borders." He later deleted both his Twitter and Facebook accounts, saying, "this is a moment of defeat for me, and for independent cinema, because, for once, our chances were great." Karan Johar also said he felt very disappointed that such a wonderful chance at Oscar glory with The Lunchbox was spoiled. Guneet Monga, The Lunchbox's other producer, said she was flabbergasted as to how the Federation could select a movie that didn't even have an American distributor, and also listed the number of global festivals and appreciation her film received, concluding that it sadly and supposedly "wasn't enough for the FFI".
In an interview with Siddharth Sivakumar of Tinpahar, Goutam Ghose, the chairman of the committee revealed:
Personally I liked The Lunch Box very much. But eventually the eighteen member jury supported The Good Road. Now I can say that some people from Bombay felt that the basic premise of The Lunch Box was wrong. Because the Dubbawalas never do such mistakes. Films are after all works of fiction, with the right to cinematic liberty! Although Lunch Box was my personal favourite, but as a chairman one should not impose his or her choice on others. And as you know this became suddenly a big controversy. And I think the media was again to some extent responsible for this decision. Because every day during the deliberation or the screenings, the media projected Lunch Box as the chosen one. It's my assumption, that the members probably thought, "My God! If the media has already taken the decision then why we are here?" It was a Chomskian 'manufacturing consent' – Lunch Box, Lunch Box, Lunch Box every day!! So the members, who are all very important people from the industry, had an opposite impulse. I don't know, but maybe that's the way it happened.