Looks like the Arab Spring of 2011 that brought down the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt had some profound repercussions in India, too. No, we are not talking in terms of petrol prices, exchange rates or any other economic or political changes. If not for the “heady times” at Tahrir Square, we would not be contemplating and discussing today why the Irfan Khan-starrer The Lunchbox is a strong contender as India’s official entry to the Academy Awards this year. So says director Ritesh Batra, who penned down the script of his much-talked about debut feature in Cairo. “Although the idea that became The Lunchbox came to me as early as 2007 when I spent some time with Mumbai’s dabbawallahs hoping to make a documentary, it was in Cairo that I actually wrote it down,” says the 34-year-old Batra. “In 2011, I was in Cairo to work on my Arabic short film. It was a very inspiring time then. So after shooting for my short, I decided to stay back there for 10 days and develop the outline I had been building for over three to four years to a full-fledged script.”
Filmmaking was something he always wanted to do, says Batra, who was born and raised in Mumbai. But as it was never considered “a viable career option in middle-class India”, he went to the US to study Economics. After “trying to work” as a consultant for three years, he quit his job and joined New York University’s graduate film programme in his mid 20s. “A screenplay I wrote then called The Story of Ram got selected for the Sundance [Institute Feature Film Program’s Directors and Screenwriters] Lab,” he says, on why he eventually quit film school. The lab, which was once school to many acclaimed filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Kimberly Prince and Darren Arnofsky, became a turning point in Batra’s career, too. He went on to make six short films out of which his last Cafe Regular, Cairo went to 40 international festivals and won 12 awards worldwide.
At first sight, Batra, in his plain black shirt and light brown trousers, could easily pass off as an Arab, courtesy his balding hair, fair complexion, jet black eyes and full beard. But the moment he starts talking, all doubts as to why he chose to set his first film in Mumbai is dispelled. Even under his faintly American-accented English lies a few strong remnants of his “largely Bandra upbringing”. His sentences are characterised by a smattering of the “you know”s, “sort of”s, “like”s and what the”s that are heard around in the streets of Bandra, which is home to a large population of Goan and Mangalorean Christians. This is also the reason why one of the three main characters of The Lunchbox, Saajan Fernandes, played by Irfan Khan, is an old Catholic widower from Bandra’s Waroda Road.
The film, which was shot entirely on real locations in Mumbai, tells the story of the relationship that blossoms between two strangers through notes passed in a wrongly delivered lunchbox. Shooting a film on location in Mumbai with actors like Irrfan and Siddiqui is, however, easier said than done. “We did a lot of planning and we broke down the script many times. It was never like we would get there and figure out how to shoot it,” says Batra. “Sometimes locations were changed and we would have to change our plans. But I was clear on what exactly I could compromise and what I could not in a particular scene.” For instance, despite having secured prior permission, the crew was stopped from shooting at Oval Maidan in south Mumbai. Only the footpath around the ground was open. “We quickly set up a cigarette stand on the footpath and made the walking and talking scene to a standing and talking scene,” he says.
Like Saajan, the other two characters in the film are also people you would easily come across in the city. Be it the lonely housewife, Ila, from the suburb of Malad, or the confident and uninhibited trainee accountant Aslam Sheikh from Dombivali (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui), all the characters feel real. “Saajan and Ila are two people who are left behind by the times. They are very lonely in the big city,” says Batra. “Nawaz’s character represents Bombay, he represents everything that these two characters are not. So he is really the stand in for the city in the movie.”
Big cities are places where you can be lonely even when you are in a crowd, he says. This emotion is universal and is possibly the reason why the film is travelling a lot, says Batra. The Lunchbox has till date won the Audience Choice Award at the 2013 Cannes Critics Week, the Audience Choice Award at the World Cinema Film Festival in Amsterdam, a special mention at the Rotterdam Cinemart Co-Production Market and Best Director at the Odessa International Film Festival.
Recognition in any form are stepping stones to the film’s journey, says Batra. But he is not one to wear praise and appreciation on his sleeve. “It is not like I have stacked up these awards in a case or anything. Neither do I have a Wikipedia page which I update when I win an award,” says Batra, with a laugh. “I think they are extremely important for the film’s journey, not as a personal ego massage. For instance, when we won the Audience Choice Award at Amsterdam, we were competing against Oscar winner Asgar Farhadi’s [of A Separation fame] film. The fact that we won against such big names and that it goes on the film’s poster helps mitigate our distributors’ risk during the release.”
The Lunchbox is probably the only Indian film to be backed by so many production houses starting from Guneet Monga’s Sikhya Entertainment, UTV Motion Pictures, Dharma Productions, DAR Motion Pictures, National Film Development Corporation of India to Germany’s ROH Films, France’s ASAP Films and Lydia Dean Pilcher’s Cine Mosaic, which has previously produced films like The Talented Mr Ripley and The Namesake. Last heard Sony Pictures Classics, which has run successful Oscar campaigns every year, has picked up the North American rights of the film.
The emerging debate about independent cinema in our country and Batra and Ship of Theseus director Anand Gandhi being touted as the new agents of change, however, doesn’t interest him. “I don’t understand what people in India call independent cinema,” he says. “If a film has no songs, stars a few actors or doesn’t star a few actors, it gets branded as indie cinema. So in that sense I do not know whether The Lunchbox is independent or not.” In the west, a film which is not financed by a production studio is called independent, explains Batra. Rather than trying to compartmentalise films as independent or arthouse, what we need is a curatorial authority, he goes on. “In the US, there is Sundance and in France there is Cannes. These are not just gala events, but strong cultural institutions,” says Batra. “Who in India is telling the audience what to watch and what not to watch from the hundreds of movies that are made here? This is where people like Karan [Johar] and Kiran Rao step in.” It is as simple as that, says Batra, it is no revolution and he is no torch-bearer.
With the Indian release and the announcement of India’s official entry to the Oscars around the corner, does Batra feel the mounting pressure? “I am not nervous about the film as it is out of my hands now. The Lunchbox has already recovered all the money that went into its making through word of mouth publicity, nothing else,” says a confident Batra. “I am happy about our association with Sony Pictures Classics, who had picked up last year’s Oscar winner Amour. Why I feel The Lunchbox has a good shot at the Oscars is because the story is very rooted, very local and very Indian.”
Such is Batra’s confidence in his final product. Does it come from the praise that his film is receiving from all quarters starting from author Salman Rushdie to documentary filmmaker Michael Moore? Nimrat Kaur, who plays Ila in the film, disagrees. “Ritesh’s confidence comes from his interesting world view,” says Kaur. “He is well-travelled, well-read and well-informed. All this brings a deeper understanding into the film he is trying to make. His sensibilities are very understated, his characters are easily relatable and he is not out there to make a point.” Kaur says that when she finished reading the script, she expected a “70-year-old Ritesh Batra”, but she was amazed by the fact that this story came from “such a young man”.
However, Batra confesses that he feels even younger. “I haven’t realised time flying by me. I still feel like I am 21,” he says. “When I had left for New York, my parents were middle-aged. When I came back I was shocked to see that they had become all old. So now I am catching up on the lost time.” It is extremely difficult to pick out time from his packed schedule of screenings, interviews and television appearances, he laments. “Now I try to use all my free time to be with my 11-month-old daughter, Aisha and my wife Claudia,” he says.
Initiaited into reading at an early age by his maternal grandfather, who was a columnist with The Pioneer, Batra says that his inspirations stem from literature more than films. “I love the works of the great Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez and Orhan Pamuk,” he says. His love for a style of multi-layered, yet simple storytelling attracted him to the works of French filmmaker Louis Malle, Satyajit Ray and Guru Dutt. “The works of these filmmakers are just timeless, which is why they are inspiring,” he says. “That’s the goal you know. If it is a good story well told, it lasts beyond the time it is meant for. It touches a universal chord.” He is also a fan of Mira Nair’s films and says one Indian film he could relate to in recent times was Dibakar Banerjee’s debut Khosla Ka Ghosla.
The only thing that is not too sweet about the success of The Lunchbox is that he is not getting enough time to work on his next project, says Batra. Titled Photograph, his next venture, too, is a love story set in Bombay. “Writing is a really tough thing and requires a lot of discipline,” feels Batra. “Confronting a blank page is not the easiest thing. It is easy to see something and say how it can be improved, because nothing is perfect and everything can be improved. But when there is nothing there and you have to create it, it is extremely difficult.”
As we inform him that we are done, Batra lets out a sigh and picks up his leather messenger bag, probably filled with working notes for his upcoming project. So how is he taking this attention, these interviews, we are curious. “It is a pain in the wrong place,” he says. “But it is a survival tactic.” And, there we see it under his wide grin. The spirit of the Mumbaikar that makes his film and characters so special. The spirit to hold up on your own among the crowd that tries to drown you out. To dream, to achieve and to survive.