“Lunchbox” has opened the world for Ritesh Batra but the director is curious to know the response to his dabba at home

By winning the Golden Rail d’Or Award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival Ritesh Batra’s Lunchbox did two things. Firstly, it improved our understanding of one of the most complex film festivals around. The film was screened at the International Critics’ Week at the festival and won the viewers choice award. This leads to the other point. That an indie film about notes exchanged through a dabba in middle-class Mumbai managed to win over audiences that are not easily swayed by uplifting tales from the East was a happy revelation. Surely Lunchbox is no Slumdog Millionaire. Here the study of loss and longing runs deep in the veins of the script.

However, Ritesh is most keen to know the response to the film in India. “I know Lunchbox has crossed over but it was not something I set out to do when I wrote it over four years. I tried to make a film which is true to emotions and milieu of the place where it is set and then let the world decide. Emotions of loss and longing are similar in every big city of the world,” Ritesh underplays the victory of the film. “But it will be a failure on my part if people in India are able to identify with it.” One reminds him of Deepa Mehta’s Water but he doesn’t want to indulge in that conversation right now.

The film brings together an aging widower working in the claims department and a lonely housewife through a dabba. In an attempt to ignite some life into her dull marriage, she starts sending special lunches to her husband. However, the dabbawala makes a mistake and delivers it to the old man. The lady realises her mistake and sends a note and in return gets a reply that changes the course of the narrative. Soon the notes become a medium for the two forlorn souls to unburden their personal pains. Ritesh says he didn’t try to manipulate emotions and kept the conversation as believable as possible without letting the audience guess the direction of the narrative.

When you have Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead roles, believability is not that difficult to achieve. Ritesh says he got Irrfan through the producers and the actor got interested the moment he heard the script. “We tend to believe after a point an actor ceases to surprise but you can’t put Irrfan in that bracket. Nawaz is somebody with whom I wanted to work for a long time and he provides a solid counterpoint to Irrfan in the film.” As for Ila, the housewife, Ritesh took the audition route and came across theatre actor Nimrit Kaur. “She went through gruelling workshops and has invested a lot in the project.”

Ritesh says the original idea was to make a documentary on Mumbai’s famed dabbawallahs. “During the research I met a lot of them, listened to their stories and realised that there is a story waiting to be told. While spending time with them, I came to know how they get to know the little secrets of the family…how one lady is fond of sending one particular dish, how another one slips in a note in the lunch box. Of course nobody told me that once in while they misplace a dabba! They would never make a mistake. It was my own imagination.”

From producers to the crew, the film is an eclectic mix of talent from different parts of the world but Ritesh doesn’t put it is a deliberate attempt to make it a universal product. It is something the reviews that the film has got so far in the international media also bring out. Ritesh says it is just that he has spent many years in different parts of the world and has come to know technicians from different nationalities. “I am a citizen of the world,” says Ritesh, who grew up on a diet of Guru Dutt’s cinema and is fond of Ingrid Bergman, Satyajit Ray and Abbas Kiarostam’s work. Not necessarily in that order, though. Interestingly, he discovered Ray in New York. But he does admit that collaboration did make Lunchbox artistically relevant to other cultures and foreign investment means that the producers will contribute in making the content travel.

Lunchbox brought his popularity home otherwise in the festival circuit he was known for his short films, particularly Café Regular, Cairo, an Arabic film set in a café in Egyptian capital where a boy and a girl talk about issues considered taboo in a conservative society. “While I was shooting the short film, I was also writing Lunchbox,” shares Ritesh.

He doesn’t like the film to be dubbed as a festival kind of film. There are two kinds of festivals. One just meant for the critics and another where business end is as important as the aesthetic one and Ritesh wants the media in India to play a role in making people understand this difference. “At Cannes alone we sold 20 territories and Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film for North America.”

With UTV backing Ship Of Theseus, he praises the recent interest of corporate production houses in independent cinema. However, he wants the corporate biggies to be sensitive about the fact that every film demands a distinct marketing strategy. Done with the mystique of love, Ritesh is now tackling lust with a film tentatively called Photograph.