We’re disappointed that The Lunchbox didn’t go to Oscars, says director Ritesh Batra

Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox.

By Subhash K Jha

MUMBAI: Ritesh Batra, the director of the amazingly received The Lunchbox discusses the film’s success and its aftermath:

Q: Never before have I seen such reviews for any film?

I know I saw the ratings. But I have not read the reviews yet. I didn’t want to get cocky with the praise. The love for the film has been very overwhelming beyond anything I expected. Most people have loved the film. They’ve been very generous. I knew it would be liked. But I didn’t know it’d be loved so much.

Q: What do you think made the film so endearing to the public and critics?

It was always important for the film to work in India. Now that it’s happened it’s very gratifying.All the love  that the film got outside India—it was sold all over world at Cannes in May—would not have meant anything if it didn’t succeed at home.I think it worked in India because it’s a sincere attempt to look at Mumbai and its people. I spent time with the dabbawallas in 2007 and then again closer to the making of the film. I just spent time with them. Initially  I wasn’t planning a film revolving around the dabbawallahs. I was planning a  documentary on them. I hoped  to find a character within the dabbawallah’s community. Then when they started relating their experiences, the story of The Lunchbox emerged.

Q: But I believe the chances of a dabbawallah actually messing up the correct address for a lunchbox as shown in your film, are quite dim?

It’s impossible, actually. So I attempted the impossible. The dabbawallahs  never mis-deliver. So in the movie also we walked that line between a mistake and a miracle. We never explain how it happened (the mis-delivered dabba that triggered off a relationship between two people who never meet).

Q: Do you think chance or destiny plays a big hand in what we do and get in life?

It definitely does. Even the way everything came together for the making of my film is not short of  a miracle. Every actor, everyone involved with the film thought our film would take the road to the Oscars. That’s why everyone was so vocally disappointed when we were not selected. It’s not as if anyone had anything personal against the film (The Good Road) that was selected and its director Gyan Correa. I know him very well. He’s  a great guy. We all reacted so heatedly because we were on the road to what the Western press calls  the road to the Oscars, like Slumdog Millionaire was. No one did The Lunchbox for the love of the money. We were all in it for  the love of the film.

Q: You had on-board so many producers?

Yes, the film’s budget is very small. And only 50 percent of the money came from India. The rest we had to generate from outside India. There was also a German and a French producer. So that money which was raised from France and Germany had to be used in those countries. That is the rule. We did the sound in Germany. We also had a German music composer. And we did the colours in France.

Q: Now are you hoping the financial structuring to produce your films would be  less complicated?

I’d still like to make my films around the world. Such a collaboration brings a lot to the table. Every producer adopted the film. There was no creative confusion.

Q: Tell me about your own love story? Are you a romantic  at heart?

I’d like to believe I am. It’s really about just loving every character in my film.

Q: Bharati Achrekar as an unseen neighbour of the protagonist…that was a stroke of genius?

Living in Bandra(Mumbai) there is the whole tradition of using baskets to pass around kitchen items. I was very intrigued  by that.Bharatiji was my only choice for the voice. She has such an iconic presence. She is part of India’s nostalgic culture. I still remember her in Wagle Ki Duniya. Bharatiji, Nawazuddin and Irrfan were all my first choices.


The Lunchbox scene
Nimrat Kaur (above) plays a very active character and Irrfan plays a passive character in the film, says director Ritesh Batra.

Q: How did you think of Nimrat Kaur for the female lead?

I had seen her in a play and small part in a movie Peddlars. I met a lot of actresses. She was one of them. I’m very lucky I found her. Ila the heroine needed to  be someone with whom the audience would want to remain in her small flat for two hours. Nimrat plays a very active character. Irrfan plays a passive character. While trying to change her own life she ends up changing his. I also needed an actress who could give all her time. Nimrat prepared for four months.

Q: Is it possible for two people to fall in love without seeing one another?

Yes if it can happen in books why not in real life.

Q: I believe the love for cooking shown in The Lunchbox is extended to your own life?

Yes, I love to cook. This film was born out of my love for food. I cook in my kitchen at least once a week. How do I rate myself as a cook? Very harshly. I’d definitely read the review about my cooking if they ever came out.

Q: You haven’t told me  about your own love story?

Before that, I find my parents’ love story very inspiring. They’ve been together since 1973 and still very much in love. My own love story started in the US where I met my wife. She is Mexican. We were both studying in the US. We moved to Mumbai two years ago. Mexican and Punjabi lifestyles are similar. Their love for food for example.

Q: You mentioned the road to the Oscars. Were you keen on taking it?

The best way to not win an Oscar is to make a film to win it. The strong Oscar buzz for The Lunchbox started when we were at the Telluride film festival. Last year the French film Amour which won the Oscar for best foreign film was Sony’s. At Telluride they screen only 24 films. Our film was one of them. Then the Oscar predictions started coming from The Hollywood Reporter and The New York Times. Now all of us should stand by Gyan Correa’s film.

Q: You seem to have done something wonderful?

I think I’ve done something right.

Q: What next?

I am writing another story set in Mumbai. I don’t know much about yet. But I don’t know where the story is going. I am just going along. I love Mumbai. It’s my home.

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