How Ritesh Batra became a legend in his own lunch box

Nimrat Kaur stars as Ila in The Lunchbox. Photo: Supplied Irrfan Khan’s curmudgeonly widower Mr Fernandes in The Lunchbox.

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Ritesh Batra started out with an idea for a documentary and was soon diverted into the world of fiction. His plan, he says, was to make a film about Mumbai’s dabbawallahs, the network of couriers who have been delivering hot food from kitchens to offices for more than 120 years, using bicycles and public transport.

Instead, he found himself thinking about the stories that lay behind these meals and the people who made them. This was the genesis of The Lunchbox, his debut feature, which has been a runaway success in India and overseas.

The first character he dreamed up was Ila, a young woman who lives in an apartment block and uses the service to send a midday meal to her husband every day. The efficiency of the service is legendary: but what would happen, he wondered, if for some reason her lunch box was delivered to the wrong person. From this premise he devised an intricate, beautifully structured tale of repetition and change, of nostalgia and immediacy, hope and expectation.

The meals cooked by Ila (Nimrat Kaur) are delivered – accidentally or providentially – to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), an isolated, lonely accountant headed for retirement. He makes contact with Ila, and notes are passed between them via the lunch boxes.

There’s lightness and darkness in Batra’s film, and developments play out in unexpected and quietly surprising ways. Establishing the right tone for each scene was a balancing act, he says. “Talking to the actors, we were always trying to work out how a thing can be both funny and sad.”

The performers brought different insights and approaches to their roles. Khan, for example, based aspects of Saajan on an uncle with whom he lived for a time. Khaur researched the lives of women who lived in apartments in the same Mumbai district as Ila.

His was a finely calibrated script, but it always left room for flexibility. He wrote the final words of the movie, for example, during the editing process. The scene was meant to be silent, “but the voiceover at the end made it come alive for me. There were a lot of subtle changes at the end.”

Batra grew up in Mumbai and is now based part of the time in New York. He’s not surewhat’s next for him. “Right now, I’m reading a lot of things, trying to figure out what to do next –  scripts, books, all kinds of things.”

The choice comes down to one thing in the end. “When you’re passionate about something, you’ll know it,” he says. “But I would like to make something universal, something that travels.”

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