A lunchbox sent by a housewife is mistakenly delivered to a stranger, and soon, an unexpected relationship begins. Ritesh Batra’s joyous first feature, a favorite at Cannes, is set within Mumbai’s remarkable “dabbawallas” system, in which lunch-box men deliver millions of meals to office workers throughout the city each day. Batra spoke to Nyay Bhushan about the challenges of filming on the streets of India.
Nyay Bhushan: How did you get inspired to weave a story around dabbawallas?
Ritesh Batra: I started researching a documentary about the Mumbai dabbawallas six years ago and embedded with them for a week. It was interesting to see how much they knew about the people for whom they deliver food everyday. 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.
It’s a very international production.
We had an American cinematographer and editor, a German sound engineer and composer and so on. So it makes it a universal product.
How did you plan the shoot?
Mumbai can be very difficult to shoot logistically in terms of traveling and obtaining various permissions. But we had broken down the scenes with the actors and our preparation was strong, which meant we were ready for last-minute location changes. Actors went the extra mile, which was great.
We first shot the characters independently. Lead actor Irrfan Khan was 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 dabbawallas for a week. We actually gave them a lunchbox to deliver and then filmed the process documentary style. We had a stripped-down crew of four people following them compared to the 50-odd crew for the interiors.
What happens when they meet?
That’s something for the audience to find out. It’s a love story.
What kind of cinema inspires you?
It’s a diverse bunch: 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 when we tap into that kind of sensibility. We are self-conscious, 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.
How is independent Indian cinema evolving?
It is the beginning of the beginning. 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. A movement doesn’t happen with just a few films. It happens with a bigger audience.
Nyay Bhushan is a photographer, filmmaker and India-based correspondent for The Hollywood Reporter. Reprinted with permission of The Hollywood Reporter.
THE LUNCHBOX | India, 2013, 104m | Director/writer: Ritesh Batra