The cast and crew of ‘The Lunchbox’ explain how this delightful indie resonates with Maximum City and its people while speaking the universal language of love.

The Lunchbox is a film that talks to its audience in many ways. There are crisply written dialogues that make you chuckle or tear up at the loneliness of its lead characters, essayed efficiently by Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur. Beyond the written word, director Ritesh Batra wanted to get the sight, sound and smell of Mumbai and its inhabitants through his story. “Our production wasn’t huge enough to be able to hire a train (Mumbai local), but big enough to hire a compartment,” he says, when asked about shooting in real-life locations, amidst passengers in the train or dabbawalas cycling through the roads during monsoons. “We hired a compartment and had junior artistes as we shot the scenes involving Irrfan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. When the train stopped at a few stations, we allowed new passengers to enter and meet the actors,” he adds.

Cinematographer Michael Simmonds captured Maximum City like never before. “Being an outsider, he viewed the city with a new perspective,” explains the director.

The Lunchbox is Ritesh Batra’s debut feature film and is one of the most delicious love stories to have come out of Indian cinema’s niche space in a long time. The film has earned its respect at international film festivals and a few Hollwyood portals feel it could be a strong contender for Academy Awards nominations in Best Foreign Language Film category. The cast and crew, who were in Hyderabad for a preview and promotion, are keeping their fingers crossed and hoping the film will be nominated from India for the Academy Awards.

A few years ago, Ritesh Batra was making a documentary on Mumbai dabbawallas and through them, had insights into the lives of a few Mumbaikars — a housewife who indulges in elaborate recipes and hence keeps the dabbawala waiting, a household where the mother-in-law calls the shots in cooking… “I heard about interesting facets of people. I dropped the idea of a documentary and wrote this story instead,” he reminisces.

Batra hasn’t seen the Tamil film Kadhal Kottai (Prema Lekha in Telugu) whose protagonists Ajith and Devayani fall in love through letters, without having seen each other. What makes this story of falling in love through letters in the times of social networking utterly believable is its setting — Irrfan’s workplace is a government office filled with musty files and Nimrat’s is a middleclass household.

Adding quirkiness to the story are characters played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui (“for me, he signifies the optimistic spirit of Mumbai,” says Batra) and the mausi who is heard but never seen (a brilliant voiceover by Bharati Achrekar). Again, Batra isn’t aware of K. Balachandar’s Ethirneechal with the character of an elderly man who is heard but never seen. “Mumbai is a city where conversations happen through apartment windows and housewives share ingredients from one floor to another by lowering baskets over the balconies. We were lucky to get Bharati Achrekar to speak for the mausi character. She made it all appear real,” says Batra.

With food being a catalyst for the love story, Batra took the help of a food stylist. He mentions how Nimrat’s character, going through a turbulent time, finds a way out of her mundane routine through elaborate recipes.

One of the film’s trump cards, besides food, is its ending. “We wanted the audience to be part of the way the film ends,” says Batra.

Love actually

Irrfan has been a part of love stories before — Maqbool, Yeh Saali Zingadi and Life in a Metro — but not a simple, heart-warming love story. The actor says The Lunchbox is a love story he was waiting for. “I didn’t want to do a fluffy love story; I wanted an interesting one I could connect with.” Essaying the part of a man in his late 50s, staring at retirement, didn’t give him scope for glamour. Irrfan says.

“When I read the script, I saw hidden facts in the story. I sensed a strong sensuality between these two characters which is neither discussed nor outlined by the writer/director. I could see it as an actor; I could see the pull between these two people and I knew this is going to be engaging for the audience.”

Evolution of a filmmaker

Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions and UTV came aboard to distribute The Lunchbox after the film earned positive reviews at Cannes Film Festival. Karan’s mere association helped The Lunchbox get a wider release but the filmmaker isn’t taking it easy. He is going all out to be part of the promotional campaign. “When I believe in a film, I do anything possible in my capcity,” says Karan, taking to us post the screening in the city.

He confesses to “feeling shy” to share the publicity space with Ritesh Batra, producer Guneet Monga, actors Irrfan and Nimrat whom he calls the “pillars of the film”.

Karan’s own trajectory has seen a change in the recent past. His short film as part of Bombay Talkies had no trace of his staple fluffy romances. Soon, he will be seen in a negative role in Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet. “It was exhilarating to direct Bombay Talkies. I am taking baby steps into new genres,” he says. When he looks back at his mammoth hits Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, he says, “As a filmmaker, I’m embarrassed and realise there are cringe worthy moments in these films. But these films helped me grow. It’s heartening to know how much people love these films even today when they watch it on satellite television. I think I must have done something right.”

Champion of the indies

Producer Guneet Monga, one of the producers of Anurag Kashyap’s production company, has been the go-to producer for indie filmmakers with cutting-edge scripts. “We are surrounded by talented aspiring filmmakers in the industry, who are now assistant directors or writers. Anurag and I, along with a team in our office, read at least four or five scripts in a week to 10 days. When we spot a good script, we try and do out best to find funding and encourage a filmmaker,” she says.