A Conversation With Ritesh Batra, Director of ‘The Lunchbox’

Ritesh Batra, center. on the set of The Lunchbox with some of the cast (including Irrfan Khan at right).
Ritesh Batra, center. on the set of The Lunchbox with some of the cast (including Irrfan Khan at right).

The Mumbai portrayed in The Lunchbox, director Ritesh Batra’s latest film, is one that’s very different from what fans of Indian cinema are probably used to. This isn’t a glossy story about glamorous people — instead it’s a subtly elegant story of two lost souls — a middle-aged civil servant preparing for early retirement (Irrfan Khan) and a housewife struggling to save her marriage (the wonderful Nimrat Kaur) who are brought together completely by chance when one of the city’s famed dabbawallas makes a rare mistake. The film opens tomorrow in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

After its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year, several critics and moviegoers were convinced that The Lunchbox would be India’s submission to the Oscars — with many believing that the film could have possibly even taken home the Best Foreign Language Film award. Alas, the Film Board eventually selected the Gujarati film The Good Road (which did not receive the Oscar nod).

I had the chance to talk to the director earlier this week about the film, working with the dabbawallas and, of course, the Oscars controversy.

Congrats on all of the success of the film. Why do you think that so many viewers had such an emotional connection to it?

You’ll have to answer that question yourself. Going to a film, you just bring yourself to the work. I just put myself into the work, the actors brought themselves to their roles and really put themselves into the characters. I think that’s why people have responded the way they have.

I read that you got the idea for the film when you wanted to make a documentary and then came up with the story of this film instead. Can you tell me more about that?

I was trying to make a documentary about the dabbawallas, and in the process we became friends. They had all of these stories about the people they worked with and would say things like ‘this housewife does this’ and ‘one time this happened.’ And so I got the idea for the film and I started writing.

My favorite little moment in the film was when Ila tells a dabbawalla that her husband’s lunchbox is going to the wrong place and the man insists that the dabbawallas never make a mistake and points out that researchers from Harvard came to study their efficiency. How have the dabbawallas reacted to the film? Did anyone say anything like ‘we don’t make mistakes’?

Well, there are many dabbawallas in the film — every one you see in the movie is an actual dabbawalla. When I watched it with them recently I said, “it’s not about a mistake, it’s about a miracle.” Because only one in six million [lunchboxes] go to the wrong place. That’s not a mistake, it’s a miracle.

One of the most striking things to me about the film is that it takes place in Mumbai, but the characters are so isolated. Ila rarely leaves her home, Sajan doesn’t really have any friends or confidants. Were you trying to make a statement about life in big cities?

I don’t think I was trying to make a statement. Of course, urban loneliness is a real thing, but I’ve always lived in big cities — I’ve lived in Mumbai, I’ve lived in New York — and that loneliness is in all big cities.

While I was watching your film, I thought a couple of times about Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation — it had a similar theme of an older man forming an unlikely emotional connection to a younger woman and there were other little things that were similar. Do you agree?

I love that movie a lot and the movies that you love kind of stay with you. Another movie people have said it reminds them of is In The Mood For Love. I thought of the character of Ila first when I was writing and was thinking of a character who tries to fix her life through cooking and food. And that’s how it started.

And this is Oscar season, we’re just a few days away from the ceremony, I know that many people were upset that The Lunchbox wasn’t selected by India to be nominated. Have you moved on from that?

You have no choice but to move on. I think it’s really a tragedy for Indian filmmakers — there are a lot of filmmakers out there that could really shine on a bigger stage but they don’t have the support they need. I think my team and I were also naïve about the process. We thought the film would do well on its own merits.