With several international awards in its kitty, The Lunchbox is set to wow Indian audiences with its portrayal of love and longing even as it is being pitched as India’s Oscar entry
Saajan Fernandes ( Irrfan Khan) is an ageing widower whose life gets some muchneeded flavour courtesy a wrongly- delivered dabba. Ila ( Nimrat Kaur) is a young, melancholic housewife who hopes to win her husband’s heart through hot meals. The two lost souls are connected by a dabba, which becomes a carrier of food as well as of charming and profound letters. When Fernandes is not busy giving Ila feedback on her food (“too salty,” one letter says), he gives her advice on how to save her marriage.
Director- writer Ritesh Batra’s 1.5- million euro debut film, The Lunchbox, is a story of romance, loss and nostalgia set in Mumbai. It has already recovered its cost after being sold to international buyers since it premiered at Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics’ Week. It has won global praise with two audience awards: The Grand Rail d’Or at Cannes and one at Amsterdam’s World Cinema Festival. Batra won the best director award at the Odessa film festival in Ukraine. The Lunchbox is still getting invited to major film festivals. Organisers of the Telluride Film Festival held seven screenings on popular demand and it is the only Indian film in competition at the London Film Festival. On cue, Sony Pictures Classics, known for its superlative record in the Oscars best foreign language category — winners six times in the last seven years— has picked up the US rights.
In India, its cause is helped by powerful supporters such as Karan Johar, who is presenting it, and UTV, which is distributing it. Anurag Kashyap is also raving about it. They all have swooned over its everyday visuals, of Fernandes
A Punjabi from Bandra, Batra, 34, left Mumbai to attend the graduate film programme at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, from which he dropped out in 2010. He initially wanted to make a documentary on dabbawalas, one of Mumbai’s lifelines. But in 2007, he started writing a love story centred on what he describes as a “miracle, not a mistake”— a dabba landing at the wrong address. He developed the script at the Binger- NFDC screenwriter’s lab in Goa and then at the Torino festival screenwriter’s lab, and got funding from France, Germany, the US, along with NFDC, Sikhya Entertainment and DAR Motion Pictures from India. The international partners came in handy during post- production: The sound de- watching a tape of TV show Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, a fluffy roti being cooked in a tiny kitchen, a man cutting vegetables in a local train. They may be details specific to Mumbai, but as Khan says, “It could’ve been any place in the world.”
Viewers are engrossed in the fates of the leads from the opening scene. Fernandes, a government official near retirement, is reluctant to hand over reins to Shaikh ( Nawazuddin Siddiqui), his successor. If he appears content with his life, Ila wants to turn her’s around and restore the intimacy she once shared with her husband. sign was done in Berlin, colour correction in France and editing in New York.
While Khan and Siddiqui were Batra’s first choices, his search for Ila took almost three months, until he zeroed in on Kaur, a theatre actor. The two met over six months to develop the character. “I wanted her to spend time in the flat,” says Batra. “She and Nakul ( Vaid, who plays her husband) were also involved in the production design. They went shopping for the flat.”
Shot in 29 days in 2012, largely in a crammed flat in Malad East and the railway office in Churchgate, Batra ensured that Kaur and Khan didn’t meet, to create a romance that thrives on imagination. Says Batra, “They have a palpable sense of who the other person might be, or how they might look like.” The only time Khan and Kaur came together during the shoot is when their characters plan to meet at Matunga’s Café Koolar.
Kaur abstained from social networks and cut down on meeting friends. “I was on my own,” she says. She stopped plucking eyebrows, cut her fingernails and coloured them with henna to get into the character. Khan drew inspiration from his uncle, Manzoor Ahmed, who spent his life commuting from the suburbs to Churchgate.
It is the genuineness of the characters that makes The Lunchbox so alluring. When Shaikh describes himself as “height mein kuch khaas nahin” and “kaala kaluta” or when Fernandes says “there is no value for talent in this country”, they may be talking about themselves. Batra won’t have to worry about that. The Lunchbox already has India’s film fraternity buzzing ahead of its September 20 release.
IRRFAN KHAN ( RIGHT) WITH NAWAZUDDIN SIDDIQUI