Director Ritesh Batra, who has packed an appetising meal for cinegoers, talks about his choices and concerns

Ritesh Batra’s film is so much about food that for once one doesn’t have to bring the culinary element in to suit the contours of the column. Usually debutants don’t make it to this column but then who can say no to the director of The Lunch Box. The man of the moment has just faced the jolt of Film Federation of India’s jury finding his food for the soul not appetising enough to compete at the Oscars but there are no two ways about the film’s artistic merit. It is satiating the hunger for good cinema of not only the cineastes but also the layman.

“The film started from Ila’s story in my head. Ila needed some detailed activity to get lost in. In life we often don’t see the problems staring at us and get lost in some mundane details and in Ila’s case it is food,” says Ritesh as he relates how food came into the picture. “It deepens the relationship between the two protagonists,” he adds as we get into the queue for a quick bite at The One restaurant of New Delhi’s Le Meridien. It is dinner time and the restaurant is bustling with activity. Famished after a long press conference, Ritesh doesn’t wait for the menu to arrive, and opts for the buffet instead. He fills the plate with small portions of dum murgh biryani, mutton rogan josh and herb crusted chicken with thyme cream.

Those who have watched the film will vouch that food never looked so appealing on screen. Conscious of talking about himself, Ritesh says he doesn’t want to sound vain and it requires a little persuasion to get him going. “I was very much involved with the process but we had food stylists on the sets to look into the details. I had some particular dishes in my mind and wanted them to make them look good for the camera. Like small pieces of carrot in the rice. Aubergine is my personal favourite and wanted Ila to cook it,” Ritesh reels out the details. “The challenge was that food itself was raw but it had to look good.” He says he can’t make up stories like how they enjoyed food on the sets. “You can’t use cooked food as it goes stale quickly. Even the chapattis were not fully cooked. But Irrfan and Nawaz are such committed actors that they ate raw food and made it look as if they are really relishing it.”

Soon his phone rings and he excuses himself to talk to his wife. Applying one of the lessons of the film? Ritesh nods with a shy smile. Married to a Mexican, Ritesh, a Punjabi, says both value food a lot. “I cook a lot of rich stuff from Punjab. I am also fond of preparing middle-eastern delicacies from Lebanese and Iranian cuisine. I am very good at preparing different variants of biryani. Initially, I go by recipe and then I start experimenting.” Something like he does with his films? “Yes, I started with shorts and then graduated to feature films. I wrote more than a hundred drafts before looking for a producer.”

Some of the visuals and shot taking remind of his award-winning short Café Regular but Ritesh feels the visual design of The Lunch Box is quite different. “There can be little similarities because both come from my imagination but there is no conscious effort to set films around food and cafes. I made the short out of my fascination for Cairo.”

The idea for The Lunch Box took root when Ritesh was researching for a documentary on Mumbai’s dabbawalas and the footage of their work reminds of that research. “I shot it for the film but it looks like a documentary footage because you cannot replicate their process. Even the guy who has a speaking part in the film is an actual dabbawala.”

One of the narrative devices that stole everybody’s heart is the voice of Bharti Achrekar. Ritesh, washing down the gravy with an aerated drink, says the character was present in the script from the first draft and it was always Bharti Achrekar’s voice. “I remembered her from Wagle Ki Duniya days. I needed someone who could make her presence felt only through her voice and I think she has very iconic voice. She is part of our collective memory.” Similarly he has brought in episodes of Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi as the cherished memory of Saajan Fernandez. “The characters have stopped somewhere in a point of time. They like to do and watch things when they were happy.”

The characters were percolating inside Ritesh for a long time. Like, he says, when he was growing up in Mumbai in the 80s he knew many Christians whose first name was Hindu. “To me, essentially, it is the story of two people who are trying to sift through the baggage of their life through this unique relationship. And Aslam Shaikh’s character is an interesting counterpoint. He balances them out and Nawaz does it very beautifully. He is there to remind that you cannot sift through this baggage alone. You need other people. Saajan doesn’t realise for a long time how much does he need Shaikh.”

For a change the female characters are performing gender roles – cooking food, taking care of husband in illness – and nobody seems to mind it. Ritesh says it has something to do with the sound emotional logic of the film. “The characters have evolved from people I have seen while growing up in Mumbai, Lucknow and Delhi.”

Selection as the Indian entry for the Academy Awards would have been a perfect dessert for this enduring meal but the way things turned out have left a bitter taste in Ritesh’s mouth. He says the Oscar buzz was not started by the him or the producers but by respected newspapers like Hollywood Reporter after the film was every well received at respectable film festivals like Cannes and Telluride. “It is not a realistic option to request the Academy to change the rules. A jury that understands the Oscars must be constituted in the future. I am rooting for The Good Road, sincerely hope they bring Oscar glory to India and I and my team stand firmly behind them.”