Cannes: 'The Lunchbox' Director Ritesh Batra (Q&A)
Inspired by Mumbai's famous lunchbox delivery service, the Irrfan Khan-starrer screens in the Critics' Week.
Ritesh Batra graduated from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts film program. In 2009, Batra was selected for the Sundance Writers and Directors labs for his feature script The Story of Ram which earned him a Sundance Time Warner Storytelling Fellow and an Annenburg Fellow. His various short films were acclaimed on the festival circuit such as 2010's Gareeb Nawaz ki Taxi which won the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Short at the 2011 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA). In 2011 Batra wrote and directed a series of narrative short films chronicling the social revolution sparked by the Arab Spring protests. The films included his award-winning Café Regular, Cairo which was recently acquired by European broadcaster ARTE.
Batra's screenplay for his feature directorial debut The Lunchbox (screening in the Cannes Critics Week) won an Honorable Jury Mention at the 2012 Cinemart at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. The project was also part of the Berlinale Talent Project Market and was mentored at the Torino festival screenwriter's lab and at India's NFDC Film Bazaar in Goa. Batra tells THR why it was important for The Lunchbox to shape up as an international coproduction.
THR: The premise for The Lunchbox revolves around Mumbai's famous “dabbawallas” (lunch box delivery men) who deliver millions of lunch boxes to office goers everyday. How did you get inspired to weave a story around this?
Batra: I started researching a documentary about the Mumbai dabbawallas six years ago and embedded with them for a week. And it was interesting to see how much they knew about the people for whom they deliver food everyday. So they would tell me details about them – who likes what kind of food or what sort of relationship they have with their families. I became more interested in the people than the dabbawallas. The reality of these people was quite fascinating which inspired me to write the script - my first draft was ready in 2011.
THR: How did the project take shape since you participated in various script and coproduction workshops?
Batra: Once I was confident I could send out the script, I started to look for producers. I wanted an Indian producer who was open to collaborating as I wanted it to be an international coproduction. I wanted it to have the potential to travel and hence started applying to the coproduction markets such as Rotterdam's CineMart and the Berlinale Talent Market. I met producer Guneet Monga (who heads her banner Sikhya Entertainment and acclaimed director Anurag Kashyap's AKFPL) and she was very open to have a global financing structure and put it all together. So producers include Sikhya Entertainment, DAR Films and the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) from India; French (ASAP Films) and German (Rohfilm) coproducers came on board alongwith American producer Lydia Dean Pilcher (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, The Namesake, The Talented Mr Ripley) via her banner CineMosaic. And Germany's Match Factory is the international sales agent. The film's total budget is roughly about $1.5 million.
THR: Why were you so particular about this being an international coproduction?
Batra: I knew the script had potential to travel. And internationally the way editors, cinematographers, co-writers work, I wanted that kind of collaboration. We had an American cinematographer and editor, a German sound engineer and composer and so on. So it makes it a universal product. When you have international financing it makes a difference - it helps the film a lot strategically. Collaborating makes it artistically relevant to other cultures and it can be seen widely.
THR: How did you plan the shoot?
Batra: Mumbai can be very difficult to shoot logistically in terms of traveling and obtaining various permissions etc. But we had broken down the scenes with the actors so our preparation was strong which meant we were ready for last minute location changes. Actors went the extra mile which was great. I think we did good despite a taxing shoot. The film is about a lunchbox sent by a housewife that is misdelivered to a stranger and how this starts a relationship via a daily exchange. So we first shot the characters independently. Lead actor Irrfan Khan, who also has scenes with fellow actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, were filmed separately. Then we filmed the woman's story which mostly takes place in an apartment, with actress Nimrat Kaur. And then we followed the actual dabbawalas for a week. We actually gave them a lunchbox to deliver and then filmed the process documentary style. So we had a stripped down crew of four people following them compared to the 50 odd crew for the interior shots. The film was shot digitally with the Arri Alexa camera.
THR: How did you go about the casting process?
Batra: The lead casting of Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire, The Namesake) happened via producers Lydia Dean Pilcher and Guneet Monga who referred him to the project. Nawazuddin Siddiqui (who starred in last year's Gangs of Wasseypur which screened at Cannes) was someone I wanted to work with for a while. And for the female lead we did some auditions through which we discovered Nimrat Kaur who has done a lot of theatre. (She was also part of 2012's Peddlers which screened at Cannes). We rehearsed for six months before filming. Her character has a five year old girl so we developed that relationship too. She really invested in the role and prepared quite well for that.
THR: Do the two leads eventually meet?
Batra: The two main leads perhaps share screen time towards the end. That's something for the audience to find out. Its a love story between them.
THR: What are your views on how independent Indian cinema is evolving?
Batra: It is the beginning of the beginning. What's important is that we need to know that movements happen when people coalesce around one idea. We have to ask, what are we saying about India right now? If it is one broad deep idea, there can be a market for that. We need to say something honest and truthful about the Indian condition right now. A movement doesn't happen with just a few films. It happens with a bigger audience.
THR: What kind of cinema have you been inspired by?
Batra: Its a diverse bunch which includes Louis Malle, Ingrid Bergman, Satyajit Ray and Abbas Kiarostami and many more. Iranian cinema is very interesting because it is honest, specific and local to Iran - because it is local, it becomes universal and can travel. This can develop in India too when we tap into that kind of sensibility. What is mostly happening in India is that we are self-conscious and trying to be something we are not – such as trying to be Tarantino-esque. Something original and organic comes after you invest in yourself and discover your voice.
THR: How does it feel to be at Cannes and celebrating the 100th year of Indian cinema?
Batra: If I was going to Cannes in the 99th year of Indian cinema, I would still be as thrilled as I am now! I think it is great and there should be a lot of people from India this year. It will be like being in Mumbai! This is my first time at Cannes. Of course, its a great place to launch the film and hope it travels more. It has a universal premise that people can hang their hat on. I am looking forward to seeing the film with a global audience. I am confident that it can translate across cultures.
THR: So what's your next project?
Batra: I am working on a script called Photograph – its a story between a photographer and his muse. It is not similar to The Lunchbox as far as the play between man and woman. Lunchbox is about love while Photograph is about lust.