‘All These Characters Are Me in Different Ways’: An Interview with Director Ritesh Batra

"So it all came from a point of view of nostalgia, of how India used to be when I still lived there," says Ritesh Batra of his film, The Lunchbox.
2014-02-28 (Limited)

The cinema is filled with stories of love and loneliness. Sometimes two people fall in love forever; sometimes, they break up. First time director Ritesh Batra offers a different twist on the formula in The Lunchbox: here, the two people never meet face to face. Mentored at the Torino Film Lab, the movie had its world premiere at the Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival 2013. The film is currently platforming across the US and on VOD as of 1 July.

The film screened at numerous festivals, including the Torino Film Festival in December 2013, where PopMatters caught up with Batra.

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I understand that you were working on a documentary about lunch box deliveries in Bombay when the project transitioned into the fiction film, one that’s focused on a theme of loneliness.

Some things happened to me during that time. I was away from India for many years, living in New York and in the States. Then in 2007, I came back. I wanted to make a documentary about the dabbawallas [a lunch box delivery service in Bombay] and I had embedded myself with them. In that process we became friends and they told me stories about the housewives from whom they would pick up lunch boxes.

During that time, I was, of course, always trying to be a better writer. I really fell in love with the screenwriting form. Some things that I would write didn’t really work. I realized that I really had to bring myself to it, bring my own life to my work. That may sound very obvious when you say it like that, but I think for most writers, it’s kind of like a big dawning, a big realization that happens when you are trying to get better at your craft. It’s something like a bulb that lights up, something that clicks. It’s hard to describe. I think all these characters are me in different ways.

I’m also interested in how this theme is connected to Saajan Fernandes [Irrfan Khan], who’s feeling old as the film begins, even though he’s not so old. Where does that focus come from?

Someone asked me in an interview recently what I had in my room when I was growing up. It’s a really nice question. I didn’t have any posters because I shared a room with my grandfather. He lived with us for the last 25 years of his life. I never had my own room as I always shared it with him. I got to see how he lived. My grandmother had died before I was born. So he lost his wife and then I got to see the last quarter of his life in close quarters, his loneliness and so forth. Perhaps it comes from there. He used to smoke a pipe and sit around a lot and would be musing over things.

I often wonder while the film is traveling, why it’s resonating everywhere. I think that one of the reasons is that this kind of loneliness is something that everyone can identify with. Big cities are places that: even though everyone is in a crowd, they’re also very lonely.

I understand that you lived in both New York and Bombay. How did these experiences shape your vision?

I wrote the film when I was not in India; I wrote most of it when I was in New York and traveling in the Middle East. So it all came from a point of view of nostalgia, of how India used to be when I still lived there. I think my being away and then coming back brings a lot of nostalgia to the story.

Bombay has its own personality in the movie, viewed from train windows, from above, and in various close ups. The lunchbox becomes yet another character. That green bag is sometimes lumpy and sad, wet or perky as it bumbles along its path. We see it travel and then we look for it when it’s not in frame. How did you conceive lighting it, the green color, its shape?

Definitely the color. I think the color was a really good choice. My director of photography [Michael Simmonds], suggested that color. When we were coloring the film later, we made it jump out even more. It had to be within the realm of possibility. It couldn’t stand out too much from the other lunchboxes, but it had to stand out just enough. We really found that “just enough” while we were color editing the film. All that was there in the writing and I think that the lunch box is more of a character than Bombay.

For me, Bombay, while I was writing the film and also while I was making it, was always the character of Shaikh. When I read the first draft and then later drafts, I realized Shaikh had become bigger and bigger. And as he became bigger and bigger, the city became less and less there in the story. It also allowed us to make a film that we could make with this budget and this set up. After all, Bombay is an incredibly difficult place to shoot. But I think Nawazuddin Siddiqui [who plays Shaikh] did a really good job of keeping Bombay in the film.

What about Irrfan Kahn’s performance? During much of his time on screen, he doesn’t speak. He gives this very cerebral, extremely physical performance. Did you work together to develop those nuances?

Irrfan was so invested in this project. He got himself on as an executive producer and without that, we would never have been able to make the film that we wanted to make. He is an incredible human being and he put himself in my hands. I think when you are directing a film, in a sense, you just have to create the right atmosphere for an actor. Of course the material, the script itself, has to inspire.

While Irrfan and I were working in our preparation together before the shoot, we’d meet often and add to the script. As he was trying to get into it, I was trying to bring it closer to him. After our discussions, I would rewrite, because he would tell me something about how this character really reminded him of his uncle who came to Bombay and with whom he lived for a time. When he would tell me about his uncle, whatever resonated, I would try and write that into the script. There was a great collaboration between us. Once Irrfan was on set, then I think a lot of the ways in which he experiences the food just came out, how he built that performance bit by bit.

It was really important for me to stay close to the actors for this and not really involve the camera so much in the telling of the story. We would just have it unfold through these vessels that are the actors. For that to happen, you really have to create an atmosphere on set where the actor can do his best work. And, of course, you have to make sure the camera is switched on.

The actors’ commitment must have helped so much, as this is your first film. Was your process spontaneous on set or completely written out beforehand?

I think it was a little of both, actually. It’s a real collaboration. And because many actors bring their lives to the movie, you take it as the generous gesture it is. Actors can’t really give a true and honest performance if it’s all written. The script is not a checklist, you know? A script is a jumping off point. I think I came to recognize that while we were preparing, because each time we would talk, then I would rewrite based on our discussions. It would become better and better.

A lot of people brought themselves to the project because they loved the script. I think the hardest thing is that you are writing with your subconscious mind, but when you are on set, your subconscious mind has no room to kick in, because you have other things to worry about. You have the production design, the costume design, the photography, and so many collaborators. They all have plans, and need you to tell them where things stand. The people who are really working with their subconscious minds on the set are the actors. If you have great actors, you have to trust their instincts. Many times I would trust their instincts over mine because I knew that they were feeling their way through this.

Can you talk about the “proverb” that you chose about the trains, “The wrong train can get you to the right station”?

It’s not a proverb, we made it up. I think it came in the writing process. There was a different version of it earlier in the script. Though I write in English, this phrase is said in Hindi in the movie. It was actually something different in English, but then I was talking to Siddiqui and he said his mother always said to him, “In 12 years, even the garbage would have its day.” He spent 14 years trying to get into Bollywood and it was a big struggle, a lot of years of his life. His mother would always tell him that to encourage him. As I was trying to get the script closer to the actors, they were trying to get into it. Then I started thinking what Shaikh’s mother would say to him. This is what I came up with. So I think it’s a real gift from the actor and it really comes out of a close collaboration. And it sort of becomes, in many ways, what the film is about.

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