After spending 13 years in America,writer-director Ritesh Batra returned to his roots in Mumbai initially,to make his first feature film,then to set up home in the city again. In the work of the dabbawallahs who have come to characterise the city he visualised a love story that takes off when a dabba is delivered to a wrong address. When The Lunchbox premiered at the Cannes Films Festival earlier this year,the movie bagged the critics week viewers choice award. Since then,the love story between an aging widower (Irrfan) and a lonely housewife (Nimrat Kaur) through letters exchanged in a dabba has been winning hearts and awards across the globe. The movie is a part of multiple film festivals,including the ones hosted in Tulleride,Toronto,Busan and London and is being pitched as Oscar-worthy. Author Salman Rushdie recently tweeted that it’s the best Indian film in a long time. Seated in a café in suburban Bandra,Batra talks about how the film came about and the road ahead. Excerpts:
What set you off on this unusual love story?
This is a story I had worked on nearly six years ago. Initially,I wanted to do a documentary on the dabbawallahs of Mumbai. But I did not want to talk about their process. To do my research,I spent time with them,as much as they would allow me to,and worked as a dabbawallah for a week. Eventually,we became good friends. All of them are in the movie. One of them also has an important part with dialogues.
How did the story of The Lunchbox evolve?
The dabbawallahs told me stories about the housewives they pick up lunch from to deliver to their husbands. That intrigued me and I started writing the story of The Lunchbox. This script is something I kept going back to. Finally,I had a good draft in 2011. Then the whole process of making the movie started. We shot it last year around this time.
How did filmmaking happen to you?
I lived in Pali Market,Bandra,with my family till I was 19. Then I moved to America to study economics and worked as a consultant. Later,I quit my job and joined a film school in New York. A year-and-a-half later,in 2009,I dropped out of that too and started working on my own,mainly making shorts.
I dropped out of film school because I wanted to break away from a structured system. In my second year there,I got to attend the Sundance script laboratory. They take eight people for a five-week workshop. It was very rigorous. I believe that was the film school for me. The experience I had at the school was about techniques and not looking at the heart of what a writer,director has to say.
How did The Lunchbox manage to get three major international producers on board?
Once I was confident that the script had the potential to be something good,I took it to some co-production markets. In India,Sikhya Entertainment,DAR Films and the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) joined the project as producers along with three foreign co-producers ASAP Films of France,Rohfilm of Germany and CineMosaic of America.
Even before its theatrical release,the film has managed to garner lots of international interest.
The movies international success is overwhelming. I wanted the story to be rooted in Mumbai and it ended up being something that can go anywhere. By now,the movie has been sold to 30 territories internationally and with this we have raised the cost of the movie which was made on a budget of about $1.5 million. The movies collection after this will be our profit.
The three main characters of the film represent different ethos of the city. How did you create them?
My idea was to explore the many Bombays within Bombay. Yet,its stories of loneliness and longing are universal. It is a chaotic city where many lives collide just the way it happens in many big cities.
When I was growing up,Bandra was a Catholic-dominated neighbourhood. The character of Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan) who lives in Bandras Ranwar village is modelled on the people I had observed then. Dongri,a south Mumbai ghetto,is a place I used to visit with friends during Ramzan when eateries remain open throughout the night. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character a happy-go-lucky orphan lives there. Nimrat Kaurs character Ila lives in a small flat in suburban Malad.
How did you go about their casting?
Irrfan and Nawazuddin were my original choices. I had Nawazuddin in mind from the time I watched Peepli Live (2010). He was the best thing about that movie. Had these two actors said no,I would have had to rewrite the script. I chose Nimrat after watching her play Baghdad Wedding. She brought the discipline of theatre to her role. She purchased all the items required for the flat where we shot her portion,apart from spending nearly four months there,rehearsing and decorating the place before the shoot began.
There’s also a nostalgia for old television shows in the movie…
I am very nostalgic about old television shows Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi,Nukkad and Buniyaad. That was the time when there was just one channel and Indian television shows were absolutely excellent. Thats not the case anymore. The characters of Irrfan and Nimrat harbour the same nostalgia. The decision to use Bharti Achrekars voice was also part of that same nostalgia. I remember her voice from the Wagle Ki Duniya days. Even if she is not there physically in the film,Bharti makes her presence felt. She is Nimrats neighbour who lives upstairs and converses with her from the kitchen window.
How has your life changed after the success of The Lunchbox?
My whole travel schedule is choc-a-bloc for the next one year. If I am not disciplined,a year of my life will go in The Lunchbox releases. After India,the movie is going to release in Germany in November. With 100 screens,this is the widest release of an Indian film in Germany. It is also going to release in the UK,US and some other countries soon.
What made you settle down in Mumbai?
I came back to the city to make the film and decided to stay on. Mumbai is a great place for stories and my next movie is set here. My wife,Claudia,is from Mexico. We had a baby girl,Aisha,11 months ago. In fact,she was born five days after the shooting was completed.
Whats your next project?
Even though I am working on my second feature film Photograph which explores the relationship between a photographer and his muse I want to make a short film before that. Feature films take a long time to be made,but one has to keep creating things. I feel so insecure now about not having done that that I need to get into a schedule and write. When I received the best director award at the Odessa international film festival (in Ukraine),I felt I had directed this film long ago. I was on its sets a year ago,even though post-production work took longer.
Are you now tempted to expand the canvas of your next film?
Even if I work with big stars next,I will be swayed by their talent more than their star power. We Indians are obsessed with commercial concerns. Instead,I want to focus on my craft. There are so many talented actors in India whose potential has not been tapped yet. I believe writers and directors have not kept up with actors like Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapur.