We’re thrilled that DFI alumnus Ritesh Batra, who used to be part of our education department, has had his film selected for the Critics’ Week section at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Batra pitched his film during DTFF in 2010, so it’s great to see a journey that started here in Doha lead to such a prestigious moment. He took some time to answer some of our questions.
DFI: You’ve had a long journey since the day you pitched your project three years ago at DTFF. How do you describe this journey? What were the challenges?
Ritesh Batra: I started writing the film in 2007, and have left it and picked it up again many times. So writing it was the biggest challenge. Once the story and characters were working on the page, really good people started coming on board to help make it happen – producers, actors, crew – and the film gathered steam and of course I kept writing as they brought themselves and good notes to the project, but surely the lonely process of writing a draft that worked was the biggest challenge.
DFI: When exactly did the idea of ‘The Lunchbox’ started to form?
RB: In 2007, I was researching a documentary about the dabbawallah/lunchbox delivery men of Bombay. I embedded myself and spent time with them for a week to understand their work. That week, we became friends and they started telling me stories about the housewives they pick up the lunchboxes from – this one tries a new recipe everyday, etc. – just little stories like that. I became more interested in the characters who were making the meals than the dabbawallahs, so I quit making the doc and started working on these characters and stories.
DFI: It’s a big year for Indian cinema at Cannes this year – and that’s not just because of the the centenary celebration. What do you think led to this leap?
RB: It’s just the beginning of the beginning. Indian stories have just started travelling to important film festivals. There is no leap yet – the leap will come when our films translate in a big way and find markets and good box office outside of traditional audiences for Indian films. The big festivals are surely a conduit to that.
DFI: What was your reaction when you received the news of your film’s selection in Cannes?
RB: I am thrilled. We were just a very small team trying to make an honest film, my hope was that it would travel. Now it will, thanks to the selection [at Cannes].
DFI: Previously, you directed the successful short ‘Café Regular’, which you shot in Cairo. Are you planning to come back to the region for more stories?
RB: I wrote the first draft of ‘Lunchbox’ in Cairo, actually. It’s a very inspiring place full of stories. I miss the food and the people in the Middle East a lot, and look forward to getting back there soon.
DFI: Are you looking forward to screening your film in India and also the Middle East?
RB: Yes, of course!
DFI: What are you working on at the moment?
RB: I am working on a love story of sorts that is set in Cairo. And just trying to set up a good writing schedule for myself now that ‘Lunchbox’ is done. We have a baby girl now – Aisha – so she is really the new project.
DFI: You have some big actors in your debut feature. How did you manage to get them on board?
RB: All three leads in ‘The Lunchbox’ – Irrfan, Nawaz and Nimrat – are fabulous actors and came on board pretty quickly. They read the script and we met a couple of times and then they were on board. It was a very intense collaboration with them. We met before the shoot several times. For one half of the story we got our set – an apartment – and dressed it and rehearsed in it for four months before the shoot. I think we did a lot of our work before the shoot, and then on set we were trying new things from take to take. All that prep gave us wings I think.
DFI: If you were to describe ‘The Lunchbox’ in a sentence …?
RB: A delivery mistake connects a housewife to an older man in the dusk of his life and a relationship begins between them through notes in the lunchbox. It’s really the story of fantasies and reality and how tangible fantasies can be.
DFI: Previously, you worked with aspiring student filmmakers in Doha, who must be very happy for your success. What would you like to say to them?
RB: I’d like to send my love, and hope they can catch the film and that we meet again soon, insh’allah.
DFI: Many congratulations on the Cannes selection and very best of luck!
RB: Thank you.