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.

Today’s Must Listen: Pete Seeger Singing ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram’

Pete Seeger performing at the Clearwater Festival in 2007. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Pete Seeger performing at the Clearwater Festival in 2007. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The legendary singer, songwriter and activist Pete Seeger died on Monday at the age of 94. Scroll.in has a wonderful post on the multiple ways Seeger’s songs — particularly his civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” — influenced Indian and Bangladeshi popular and protest music.

But most interesting of all was this recording from Seeger’s 1963 visit to India in which he sings the classic bhajan “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram.” While performing at the Academy of Fine Arts in Calcutta, Seeger announced, “I’d like to sing you a song that I learned from two students from India who were studying in America a few years ago. I probably won’t sing it exactly right, but it’s been one of my favorite songs ever since.”

“If I sing it wrong, you just go ahead and help me out like it’s supposed to be,” he advised the audience before beginning. (I actually thought his pronunciation was pretty good, what do you think?)

Follow Lakshmi Gandhi on Twitter @LakshmiGandhi and follow The Aerogram at @theaerogram or on Facebook.

15 Minutes With ‘Gori Tere Pyaar Mein’s’ Imran Khan

Imran Khan in Gori Tere Pyaar Mein. Courtesy: Reliance Entertainment
Imran Khan in Gori Tere Pyaar Mein. Courtesy: Reliance Entertainment

It’s been three years since actor Imran Khan first teamed up with director Punit Malhotra on the hit film I Hate Luv Storys. Khan and Malhotra recently collaborated again for their latest film Gori Tere Pyaar Mein, which opens in theaters today.

Khan plays Sriram Venkat, a disconnected young man who realizes that he has to change his life if he wants to win the affections of Dia Sharma (Kareena Kapoor Khan). We spoke to Imran Khan recently during the New York stop of his press tour. A slightly edited transcript of our conversation is below.

Congrats on the film. I know you were born here in the United States. How does it feel when you come back? Do you feel American at all?

I wasn’t just born here, I went to high school in Sunnyvale, California, and then I moved back to India and then I came back here and moved to LA and went to school here as well. I’ve kind of been back and forth for the longest time.

I never felt American. My friends, my family are back in India, so I’ve always self-identified as Indian. I feel like…somewhere emotionally or culturally that I belong there.

Do you feel at least a tiny bit at home here?

I feel like I understand the culture better than some people. I feel like I can blend in.

Great. So I was really struck by this film because it’s not only a love story, but it’s also a personal journey. Can you talk about Sriram’s personal journey and displaying that on screen?

There’s a tendency in Hindi films — we like to feel that our heroes are larger than life, basically superhuman. And I’ve never personally as an actor have never been drawn to those characters. They don’t excite me. I like flawed characters. I like characters that you can relate to, that you can look at them and think that you probably know that person.

Which is why I like Sriram. He’s not a very good guy, he’s selfish, he’s self-involved, he’s a party boy. He doesn’t really care about anyone other than himself. And the film is about this growth that he has. In order to win back the girl that he wants — the girl he wants to be with — he realizes that he has to grow up, he has to mature.

I find those characters more compelling.

So these characters are better than an action hero, super hero type?

Even an action hero — you know, Hindi movie heroes, for whatever reason they tend to be absolutely perfect in every way. The greatest guy, the greatest husband, the greatest lover, the greatest everything. They are larger than life. It’s not necessarily that it’s an action hero, it’s just that perfection…[Khan makes a face].

There’s a lot of social justice in this movie and I know that in your family, your uncle Aamir Khan in particular, does a lot of social justice work. Do you connect to those messages at all?

Personally I kind of draw a line, I kind of separate my personal life from my movies. I’ve never understood — I’ve never felt a need to have any kind of social relevance or meaning. It’s all well and good if you want to put that in your movie and you feel there’s a need. But I don’t feel like there’s any requirement or compulsion.

For me, a movie is just about entertaining people. Making them cry, thrilling them, scaring them. Whatever that may be. Any kind of social activism, social justice work, the reason to do that is because you want to. You believe in it and you’re compelled to do that from within. For me, I separate them.

What’s a story about working with Kareena that people would not know?

Kareena is a very… frustrating actor to work with. Because, she’ll sit on set and not pay attention to the director at all. So, the director is just running through the character’s emotional turmoil and explaining how [her character] has just broken up with her boyfriend and she’ll just be like [here Khan mimics typing away on a Blackberry while in a completely different world.] Just scrolling through her Blackberry and just looking up and saying “uh huh, uh huh.” And I’m sitting here looking at her and thinking “She has no idea what she’s doing. She has no idea what is going on.”

But then the director rolls the camera and calls action and it’s like a light comes on. It will blow you away — and this has happened more than once. And it’s so good that I’m in the scene with her and I forget my line.

And just before it’s like [Khan does his Kareena-on-a-Blackberry imitation again]. It’s frustrating. You swear that she’s not paying attention and then — [He snaps his fingers] — she nails it.

And then you have me who sits there with a script and [He flips through an imaginary script], with my nose to the grindstone and working, working, working and she just breezes in and makes us all look bad.

Gori_Tere_Pyaar_MeinSo you can’t be on your Blackberry and then just jump into a scene? You have to be in character the whole time?

I can’t. I have to plan it all out and be in the zone. She just switches on and makes us all look bad.

And I know that your wife also has a small role in the film?

She’s in the background. You’ll never see her. (laughs) Avantika has tended to be very friendly with most of my directors. It’s always kind of — the films always have a very handmade feel. Friends and family hanging out and making a film and having fun together. So there are times that she has turned up in the backgrounds of films.

If you actually look around [Khan gestures around the hotel suite set up for his press interviews] a lot of these guys have been with me a long time. I feel like it’s very important to have a team that has a personal stake in my work. My makeup artist, my hairstylist, they’ve been with me since Jaane Tu… They know me, they like me. So for them it’s not just a job. They do personally want to be around and make sure I look my best. That counts for a lot.

And obviously you’ve worked with director Punit Malhotra before on I Hate Luv Storys. How is this film different? You’ve both grown up in a way since then. Does it feel different?

It does. I do have to admit that I’ve been very impressed with Punit’s growth. You expect a director to grow from film to film, step by step. But Punit seems to have jumped a couple of steps since then. His craft and his control on the film was a lot more than what I would have expected from someone’s second film. It’s what you’d expect from a third film or a fourth film. Being a friend, it makes me very happy that he’s grown so much.

Were you surprised at the success of I Hate Luv Storys? It’s one of those movies people have a connection to.

I had a good feeling about it while we were making it, I’ve got to tell you. I got the sense that we were making a film that would be hard to dislike. It’s simple, sweet, genuine and honest. It’s hard to dislike.

And does Gori Tere Pyaar Mein have some of those elements?

The first half is certainly going to be reminiscent of that. Because it’s a space that Punit and I had visited before, so we kind of used it as a springboard. So the first half is going to have a similar feel, but the second half takes a completely different turn into the rustic and rural.

And what was the ‘rustic and rural’ like? Did you have to prepare at all?

No, because it is a fish out of water story. It’s this urban guy who’s never been out of his comfort zone and now he’s in the middle of a village. He’s never dreamed that life could be like that. And it is one of those situations that’s inherently funny. Ripe for comedy. Really, anything you do in that situation is going to be funny.

When you were in high school here, did you feel like a fish out of water then? Did you play sports or act in plays?

I was in AV Club. No, no plays. At that point, I wanted to be a director, I wanted to be a filmmaker. So I kind of focused my energy towards that. So writing and AV Club. But I did feel a bit like a fish out of water in high school. I never quite fit in.

So when did you decide to focus on acting rather than directing?

Weirdly enough, I went to film school to train as a director and a writer. The acting gig came up because I ran into Abbas Tyrewala, who was making Jaane Tu… and he offered me a role. It was straight out of left field. I wasn’t thinking [about acting]. He did one of those [Khan imitates Tyrewala pointing at him], “You! You should act in my film!” And I said, “Me?”

I stumbled sideways into it. It was a mistake.

But it worked out.

Yeah, it’s weird how it worked out.

I was actually at the press conference for Break Ke Baad 3 years ago, and that was just after you got engaged and were about to get married. Has marriage changed you at all or affected the roles you take?

[Vigorously shakes head.] No. People ask me all the time, “What’s it like working with Kareena? You’ve worked with her before she got married, you worked with her after.” And I don’t know how to answer that.

Do you think marriage changes people?

No more than a haircut does.

Well, everyone makes it sound like a life altering thing?

I think those people are not actually married. It changes your life as much as you want it too. I truly would compare it to a haircut. It only changes your life if you want it to.

But then a haircut grows out and then you can start over and change it.

That’s what I’m saying. That how big a change it is. You sign a document, you get a piece of paper. What matters is your commitment to someone.

So do you find it annoying that so many people ask you about your wedding?

I find it irrelevant. It’s like asking about dinner.

A New Pakistani-American Comic Book Heroine, India Launches Its Mission to Mars and More

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A new Pakistani-American comic book heroine: Marvel Comics just announced that its newest series will feature a lead character named Kamala Khan, who is “a teenage Muslim girl living in Jersey City.” (The New York Times)

Mission to Mars: India launched it’s first rocket to Mars on Tuesday. The Mars Orbiter Mission, or Mangalyaan, is expected to reach the Red Planet in September 2014. Reuters reports that “[t]he probe’s 4.5 billion rupee ($73 million) price tag is a fraction of the cost of NASA’s MAVEN mission, which is due to launch this month.” Additionally, while some critics say India should not be spending its resources on a space mission, writer Leo Mirani argues in Quartz that the country “is quite capable of sending a rocket to Mars and fighting poverty at the same time.” (Reuters, Quartz)

Are we running out of coconut water? You may have noticed that coconut water has suddenly become mainstream over the past couple of years. Demand is so high that the U.N.’s Food & Agriculture Organization warns that it is outpacing the rate of production in Asia, where approximately 85 percent of the world’s coconuts are grown. (Quartz)

A call to boycott the Maldives’ famed resorts: Human rights activists in the Maldives took over the Twitter hashtag for the World World Travel Market this week while urging travelers to boycott the country’s resorts. As The Guardian reports, the activists completely hijacked the hashtag by “posting pictures of alleged Maldives police brutality and criticising one of the country’s most powerful hoteliers.” (The Guardian)

The Brooklyn Public Library celebrates Diwali: The youngest patrons of the Brooklyn Public Library learned how to draw rangoli designs on Monday. Check out what they came up with in this post. (Bookish Desi)

New music from Raje Shwari: The Timbaland protege recently released a new music video for her song “Get Your Life.”

Kumail Nanjiani and Pete Holmes Play ‘Racist or Super Racist’

The Pete Holmes Show debuted on TBS last night and one of the very first guests was one of Holmes’ old friends, fellow comedian Kumail Nanjiani. The pair reminisced about their early days as comics, when they would travel to various college towns of the country together while on tour. Nanjiani then urged Holmes to tell the audience what he used to call him back then, promising the audience that they would then get to decide if it was “racist or super racist.”

For his part, Holmes insisted that everything said back then was said inside their “friendship bubble.” Watch the segment below and decide for yourself.

Also check out how Nanjiani answered when Holmes asked, “What happens when you die?”

CBS Cancels Kal Penn’s Sitcom ‘We Are Men’

CBS announced on Wednesday that it would be cancelling We Are Men, the low-rated comedy starring Kal Penn, Tony Shalhoub and Jerry O’Connell. The network decided to can the show after just two episodes, making it only the second show to be canceled this season (the first was ABC’s Lucky 7.) There are no plans to broadcast the remaining unaired shows.

A sampling of coverage of the cancellation is below.

TV.com: “CBS Cancels We Are Men, Mercifully Freeing Kal Penn and Tony Shalhoub; Mike & Molly Will Take Its Place”

EW.com:We Are Men. We are low rated. We are gone.”

The Salt Lake City Tribune: “That’s two episodes and out for We Are Men, a show whose ratings were almost as bad as it was.”

The New York Times: We Are Men, a comedy about three single men chasing women in an apartment complex, received some of the worst reviews of the season.”

Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur sent this tweet:

As for the show’s stars. actors Kal Penn, Jerry O’Connell and Chris Smith reached out to fans via Twitter after the announcement:

So what’s next for Penn and the rest of the cast? That’s still unclear. We liked this scenario proposed by TV.com’s Tim Surette: “Now Shalhoub and Penn can go do something better, like guest-star as romantic interests on The Mindy Project.” (Though Shalhoub is probably a touch too old to play a romantic interest for Mindy. He received news of the cancellation on his 60th birthday.)

Malala Leaves Jon Stewart in Awe After Her ‘Daily Show’ Appearance

Pakistani teenager/newly published author Malala Yousafzai was the guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Tuesday night, and it was a remarkable interview in several ways. Stewart was visibly touched throughout the segment, saying at one point, “Nothing feels better than making you laugh.”

Perhaps the most memorable part of the segment occurred when Stewart asked Malala to describe the Taliban’s presence in Swat Valley and how she and her family thought that she’d never be a Taliban target because of her youth, figuring instead that her father Ziauddin would be the one under threat.

“Why should I wait for someone else,” said Malala when explaining why she put herself at risk. “Why should I wait for the government, the army that they would help us? Why don’t I raise my voice?… And I said, ‘I need to tell the world what is happening. I need to tell the world that Swat is fighting against terrorism.”

Judging from various tweets sent out before the show aired, it seemed Malala also wowed everyone present in the studio: The Malala Fund shared this photo of Yousafzai and Stewart that was taken shortly before the taping:

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And then there were these tweets from Daily Show staffers:

For the most part, viewers were equally impressed with Malala judging from the Twitter reaction.

There was, however, some dissent.

The interview was also notable because it took place a day after Adam B. Ellick of The New York Times released his mini-documentary The Making of Malala. Ellick’s 2009 documentary on Malala, Class Dismissed in Swat Valley, helped launch her to international fame. In this new film, Ellick openly wonders if he and the other adults that surrounded Malala should have realized she would be a target. “By giving [Malala] a platform, did I inadvertently play a role in her shooting?” he asks. The New York Times piece also takes a more critical look at Malala’s father and his role in pushing her into the spotlight.

Several other interesting Malala-related reads have come out this week in connection to her new book, I Am Malala, and Friday’s Nobel Peace prize ceremony. Mark MacKinnon of Toronto’s Globe and Mail examines Malala’s “mighty machine” which now includes a five-person “Malala press office” based in London that’s staffed pro bono by public relations firm Edelman.

And novelist Kamila Shamsie profiled her for The Guardian. Shamsie’s piece is notable for the fact that she was able to briefly get Malala to put her guard down and get her to sound and act like the teenage girl that she is. (A tip from the piece: “[I]f you really want to get her animated, talk about the one subject that can make almost any Pakistani turn into a bit of a teenager: cricket.”)

There was also this memorable quote from Malala about the man who shot her: “It’s hard to kill. Maybe that’s why his hand was shaking.”

One Direction’s Zayn Malik is Engaged

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Sad news for One Direction fans: Zayn Malik is officially off the market.

The 20-year-old is engaged to longtime girlfriend and fellow singer Perrie Edwards of Little Mix. Edwards raised eyebrows after she was spotted wearing a huge ring at the premiere of This Is Us, the new One Direction film, on Tuesday. The couple’s rep confirmed the engagement to the Mirror on Wednesday.

When asked by a local radio station about his thoughts on being engaged, Malik replied, “It’s cool, yeah. We’re really happy, it’s cool.”

The reaction to the engagement was swift on social media, with Malik’s teenage fans expressing both dismay and congratulations (the hashtag #congratszaynandperrie was a trending topic for hours). A sampling is below.