The Lunchbox

The Lunchbox onesheet 695x1024 The Lunchbox

On the morning commute to the office, while staring out the window and watching the scenery roll by, an image came into my head out of the blue, of the interior of a Druk Air Airbus making its approach to Paro Airport on a sunny day – and the following scene:  little Yashvi is in the window seat on the left side of the plane.  She looks out at the green hillsides, seemingly almost within grasp, as the plane threads through the valleys.  In the middle seat next to her is her Mom, Ila, relaxed and with that flush of someone newly in love.  And beside her in the aisle seat is Saajan.  At first glance you would think he too is absorbed in the thrilling, sometimes hair-raising Himalayan views out the window.  But if you watch him a bit more closely, you’ll observe he’s actually focused on Ila and Yashvi, and his normal reserve barely contains the smile of an average Joe who just won the Lotto.

I think it says something about the impression a film leaves, when weeks later you suddenly find yourself fantasizing about its characters and what you imagine could become of them.

The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra’s beguiling debut, which was the darling of Cannes and TIFF and Telluride but managed to avoid running in the Oscar race (through absolutely no fault of its own), stayed with me long after each of the two times I saw it.

From the first frame we’re plunged into the noisy, frenetic surges of people, vehicles and even pigeons moving around the overstuffed, sometimes shiny, sometimes crumbling, city of Bombay, but then it’s as if an unseen hand rises up, demanding us to “STOP!” and from thereon, we retreat mostly to the small apartment that the serious, determined young wife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), inhabits with her oft-absent and roving husband and their pensive little daughter, Yashvi.  When we’re not in Ila’s apartment, we’re following Mr. Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a taciturn, soon-to-retire insurance company man, whose life is contained mainly within the box of his office, with its grid of row upon row of desks and piles of files everywhere, when he’s not commuting by packed train and bus to his silent, empty apartment.

With the help of her neighbor, Mrs. Deshpande – whom we never see but whose shrill voice comes to embody a fourth member of the household – Ila is trying to recapture her husband’s attention by cooking him something really special for lunch.  But, in an almost impossible fluke, the tiffin-box gets carried to Mr. Fernandes by mistake, and the restaurant-prepared lunch that he normally receives, goes instead to Ila’s man.  This one-in-a-million mix-up is the catalyst for what becomes an epistolary romance between the two joyless and love-starved individuals.

Batra’s Ila (he wrote and directed the film) is pretty, even without make-up and her hair pinned up, sweating over a pressure cooker, and she craves the regard and affection that her husband is clearly depositing  elsewhere.  Fernandes, bespectacled and greying, has lost his wife years before, and he too carries an emptiness with him.  It’s then by way of short notes in the tiffin-box that goes back and forth each day that the two strangers slowly open up to each other, and share their observations about life, as well as their worries and disappointments.  He begins to anticipate the mystery of what each day’s tiffin will contain, and she begins to relish the delivery each afternoon of the tower of empty metal bowls and the letters, allowing herself the brief luxury of a cup of tea as she sits and pours over each new installment.

Ila reading 2 The Lunchbox

Thrown into this mix, is the ever-so-smarmy Sheikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui),  the overeager new employee who will replace Fernandes.  The two are brought together so that Sheikh may be tutored by his senior.  While you may initially be put off (I was!) by his cloying stickiness, he soon wears us all down, by dint of his sheer gumption.  Sheikh’s fervent striving is what so many throng to Bombay to do: jam themselves in whatever sliver of space they can find (or make), and hold on for dear life while reaching out to take another step and another and another until they can grasp some small foothold in the middle class.  Most amazing, this guy never lets his precarious circumstance wear him down.  Sheikh is always smiling, always looking forward, doing whatever has to be done to keep moving.   And if he, an orphan, has to choose his own name, or invent an unknown mother who disperses inspirational platitudes, so be it.  The character who begins as an annoying, overly solicitous mosquito buzzing about our ears, soon endears himself to one and all.  (Watch him closely in the wedding scene, dwarfed under a huge garland or standing uneasily in a sherwani with too-long sleeves – how can you not love him?)

Nawaz 1024x576 The Lunchbox

Irrfan Khan inhibits Saajan Fernandes fully, and he moves in a way that at times makes me think of the quirky Christopher Walken, just a beat or two off where you’d think he’ll be.  So much is contained inside and barely hinted at on the exterior.  Khan uses the smallest of gestures – the surreptitious glance around the office cafeteria before tucking into a letter, the use of the heel of his hand to push up his eyeglasses, a constant stiff posture – as brush strokes of how Mr. Fernandes is.  As Ila, Nimrat Kaur is wonderfully natural, owning the cramped space in that kitchen and all of the utensils therein as if she’d lived there for years as wife and mother, and when her character’s husband lets slip a seemingly innocuous lie about the lunch she sent him that day, just the tiniest, almost imperceptible, shift of her features reveals her reaction.

Saajan reading 2 The Lunchbox

And then there’s Nawazuddin Siddiqui.  Of course, we recognize his body type, his height, the cleft in the chin – we know it’s him, Nawaz – the hottest thing in the Hindi film biz in the last year or two.  But that guy disappears, and instead we’ve got this overly solicitous chamcha who makes us roll our eyes at first, but then grows on us like he does on Saajan.

Sheikh and Saajan train 2 The Lunchbox

Beyond the very spare writing without a word wasted anywhere, and the talent of the actors, there are a ton of other small details in the film that I loved: the overlap in Saajan and Ila’s worlds, where a shot of a ceiling fan in her bedroom will cut to a shot of one in his office, the little boys on a commuter train screaming the song “Pardesi, pardesi” at top volume as they beg up and down the aisle, which then is playing on the radio when Ila’s husband arrives home (and if you watch carefully, that train car carries both Saajan and the unfaithful husband, separated by a few rows of seats), Saajan confessing to Ila in one letter that he “treated himself to an auto” on the way home, the same thing anyone who’s in or has come from a family where income was spent with great care and forethought will recognize immediately, and even Ritesh Batra having Saajan mention a painting of Bombay “with a stray dog gallantly crossing the street” which he bought.  Those charming dogs, so ubiquitous throughout India, do indeed frequently trot about with a gallant air.

Final thoughts

When noting that neither of us were terribly tall, my mother used to add as a consolation “Good things come in small packages.”  The Lunchbox is one such small package, which contains huge delights.

See it, at least twice.  You’ll appreciate even more details of what makes this film so lovely the second time around.

This Friday, the film opens in NY (on two screens at the Angelika and also one at Lincoln Plaza) and in LA (at the Laemmle Royal).  For next weekend, it opens on March 7 in DC, Chicago, San Francisco and other major cities.  For a full list of the opening dates this month and next, go here.

The Lunchbox Approaches

The Lunchbox onesheet 695x1024 The Lunchbox Approaches

Hot off the film’s screenings at Sundance, as the countdown to the U.S. release date (February 28) for Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox intensifies, a wonderfully edited (and subtitled) trailer has been released.

It’s about time!  Prior to this, whenever I tried to tell to friends and acquaintances about it, the only snippets I could find online were below the standard of the film itself.  The cast (Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and crew deserve better.

I’ll refrain from any in-depth commentary on The Lunchbox right now, but suffice to say I agree with all the Oscar outrage of a few months ago.  This should have been India’s entry.

More toward the end of the month, including an interview with Ritesh Batra.

Friday night at SAIFF 2013

A few photos from the stellar line-up at SAIFF 2013 last night.

Maliya Friday night at SAIFF 2013

Maliya Scotch Marmo, screenwriter for Good morning, Karachi


When I arrived at the festival yesterday, there was a spillover crowd in the lobby of the NYIT building looking for tickets to Good morning, Karachi, and I think many went home with no joy, because the theater was full to capacity.

That says a lot about the interest for this film, when so many people would come out and get drenched on a cold, rainy autumn night (and a Friday, no less) in an attempt to see this film.  And they were on to something – I really liked it (more later).

NayyareenandHarune Friday night at SAIFF 2013

Nayyareen Chhapra, production designer, and Harune Massey, first assistant director, of Good morning, Karachi

After seeing Good morning, Karachi, I intended to stay only to watch the short by Rodd Rathjen, Tau Seru, set in Ladakh, and purposely planned to exit before Richie Mehta’s Siddharth started, because, frankly, the story of two parents searching for their lost son between Delhi, Ludhiana and Mumbai just seemed like it was going to be a really tough watch, but I got hooked within the first three minutes and stayed.  And I am so glad I did.

RichieMehta Friday night at SAIFF 2013

Richie Mehta, writer and director of Siddharth

There are still some really promising films to be seen today and tomorrow, December 8th, is the closing night of the festival with The Good Road, India’s foreign language entry to the Academy Awards.

Director Q on what came after SAIFF 2010

Q2 Director Q on what came after SAIFF 2010

I had a chance to chat briefly with director Q, whose film eye-opening film Gandu was screened at SAIFF 2010.  He’s in NYC and attending this year’s SAIFF, to which he’s brought his film Tasher Desh.

What can we expect from you this time around at SAIFF 2013?

Well, a surprise…

How has it been with Gandu since you were here with it at SAIFF three years ago?  I see it’s available for sale on Amazon…

It was great because this (SAIFF 2010) started it off and the film went to Berlin after this, which is kind of rare, in terms of being picked up for Berlin, they usually need world premieres.
After that Gandu has been to over 70 festivals so we’ve done quite a bit of work since then and two more films have happened.  So it’s been quite busy.

And it screened in India, which really surprised me…

No, it didn’t.

Wasn’t it shown at one of the festivals?

No, no, it’s still banned.  Only one time, the Bombay festival tried to screen the film, the cops came and shut it down.  Yeah, it’s still underground.

Note:  Q’s Tasher Desh screens tonight at SAIFF 2013 and the director Q will be present for a Q&A afterward.

Vijay Varma talking about Monsoon Shootout

NawazVijayAmit2 1024x893 Vijay Varma talking about Monsoon Shootout

Actors Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Vijay Varma with director Amit Kumar discussing their work on Monsoon Shootout, the opening night film of SAIFF 2013

While in New York to attend the screening of Monsoon Shootout at SAIFF 2013, here’s what Vijay Varma had to say about working on the film- where he plays a young and idealistic police officer new to the job – and what he has coming up next.

What’s one memory from making Monsoon Shootout that comes to mind when you think back on it?

It was a test of memory.

In what way?

There are multiple scenarios that I am witnessing in the film and in each scenario different things happen and there’s slight differences in the way that I’m behaving and I have to remember on which day I’m shooting what and what has happened in the past and what will happen in the future.

It was your first time working with Amit Kumar, what was he like as a director?

I think I’ve found a term for him.  We’ve all heard of method actors, but he’s a method director.

How so?

If there’s a scene in which I’m supposed to be standing and looking at someone and it’s a very close up shot, it’s right there, but he’ll still want my ID to be in my pocket, my gun to be in my back, he would want that on me, to be in  that moment, fully ready.

Monsoon resized 3 Vijay Varma talking about Monsoon Shootout

What have you been doing since Monsoon Shootout and going to Cannes?

I’ve been shooting for a film in India.  It’s a comedy, more of a Bollywood kind of musical.  It’s not been released yet, I think it’s releasing in February.

And what’s the name of it?

It’s called Gang of Ghosts.

And who else is in the film?

There are many, many good actors – there’s Anupam Kher, Saurabh Shukla, Mahie Gill, Sharman Joshi.

How long are you in New York?

I’m here ‘til the 9th, to see some friends.  It’s my first time here, that’s why I want to stay longer.

Manish Acharya interview

Manish as director 2 Manish Acharya interview

In the past three years, on December 4th, the day when director, writer and actor Manish Acharya died in a horse-riding accident outside of Bombay, I always remember him and his wonderful debut film Loins of Punjab Presents, and think what a shame it is that he’s gone so soon.  Manish was only 40 and had received much critical acclaim for Loins.  I think he had a long and promising career ahead of him, and I was so looking forward to decades of his creations to come.  Here’s a really lovely tribute that AVS aired back in December 2010 right after his passing.

Today I pulled out one of the audio files from an interview we did in September 2008, just a little while after I’d seen and loved Loins, wherein I got to ask him about some one the more mundane aspects of filmmaking as well as the more interesting ones, all of which he very gracefully and enthusiastically discussed.  It was one of those interviews you really enjoy doing, where you end up talking movies part of the time, and not just the interview subject’s own.  If you want to read the first part of the interview it’s here, though now I cringe at some of my questions five years ago, especially around budgets and the like, and in my head I hear the Dowager Countess saying “Oh, good. Let’s talk about money” as she opens her napkin with scorn for the speaker…

And here is the second part of that conversation:

So tell me about the making of Loins of Punjab Presents, how did it come about, how long to shoot and so on?

In October of 2003, is when we had….. we had a pretty decent draft of the script in six months.  And then my mother passed away and I completely took a break from all of this.

It’s the worst thing that can happen to you and I just wanted to be with my wife, my kids, my Dad – we actually came to America for a couple of months to kind of make sense of life and, not that I managed to make sense of life, I still can tear up at the most inopportune moment because something reminds me of her, but then finally I needed to get back to work.

So a few months after that is when I said “Ok, so let me raise financing for the film” and “Let me do some other drafts.”  By that time, the co-writer was around but he was really busy with other projects and he also was wondering if this film was going to go anywhere, how much time to spend on it, that kind of thing, so I basically was on my own as I wrote the last couple of drafts.  That must have been, hmm, let’s see, the end of 2004, and we shot in 2005 and early 2006.

We finished shooting in 2006 and we had the picture locked by about July/August 2006.  And then I started to wait for no apparent reason.  Roger Savage, this Oscar-nominated sound mixer, who’s done all of Zhang Zimou’s films, and I looked at the sound mixers of India and I thought “You know?  I just don’t think they’re gonna get it.”  They haven’t worked with a quiet film enough for them to understand room tones, and to me it was so essential that the sound sounded like America, that it didn’t sound like someone’s idea of America – like, what does a hotel room sound like in the US? When nothing’s going on, what kind of sounds do you hear in the background?  So Roger liked the movie, he wanted to do the sound thing, but the only time he was free was after he finished Curse of the Golden Flower, which he was working on.  So I decided to wait for him.  I’m really glad I did, because I would like him to mix all my movies, it was a great time, I went to Australia, he did it there, it was really amazing.  So then we got done, then we started applying to festivals, the movie showed in April 2007, first time at a festival, it released in India in September 2007, and now, releasing here.

Actually the last couple of years could have been compressed, and probably most producers would have compressed it into a three-month time frame, but I didn’t, partly because I was also writing and my financers weren’t really on my head about “Let’s get a return, let’s get a return!”  They just said “Listen, do what you think is right.  We trust you.”  And I’m very happy.  I told them “Don’t release it through an Indian distributor here because they’ll just put it in the Indian theaters, which is fine, our core audience will come, but I really think this is a movie that non-Indians can also relate to.  At least let’s give it a chance.  The odds of a non-desi person coming to North Bergen to a film is not that likely, while going to the Quad is more likely.”

And then of course we went to a bunch of festivals, won some awards, so that took its own sweet time, so now I’m quite ready at the end of this to start my next film.  Suddenly I look back and I think “Hey I need to get off Loins!”

What was your budget?

Actually, that’s the one thing my financers have asked me not to talk about.  The reason for them – which I agree with – is people keep categorizing the film based on that “Is this good for that amount of money?  Is it bad?”  They said “If they like it, they like it.”  They don’t want to get into that whole game.  But they’re happy with the results in terms of what’s happening.

But you yourself, from everything I’ve read, I think you did quite well in the tech sector….

Yes, I was one of the investors as well…

Would it be correct to say that you haven’t exactly had to go through the starving artist phase maybe that somebody who came to this business earlier would have?

That’s completely correct.  I didn’t go through the starving artist phase at all however I don’t know if that’s necessarily a positive or a negative, to be honest with you, because, you know, for some people it may be a positive.  I think that it’s positive in the sense that it gives you certain life experiences that you can tap into, I think it’s negative in the sense that it distracts you from the task at hand, which is creating.  So, I wasn’t starving but at the same time I don’t think the movie was just so much easier to make because of that.  The lesson I learned was that the toughest part of the process actually starts after your film is done, after you think you’re done and your first print is out, that’s when it gets tough for an indie film.

Who signed on first in terms of the actors?

I’d written the role for Ajay (Naidu), because I’d worked with him on my short films, so he was one of the first guys I contacted.  I think we’d already cast Bokade, then we talked to Ayesha (Dharker), and Ayesha recommended Shabana.  I’d been thinking about some other women for Mrs. Kapoor, but I wasn’t happy and then when she said Shabana, I said “Oh my God, she’d be so perfect, but she’d never agree to do it.”  Because it was also a kind of casting against type, and she read the script and said she’d love to do it.  Hers was the easiest casting.  From the time she read the script to the time she was on was, like, three days.

And how do you get hold of Shabana Azmi?  Do you call someone you know who also knows her…

I just got her number and she’s one of the few people in India who actually pick up her own phone.

For everybody else there’s always some assistant.  In Bombay there’s always this thing of someone’s either sleeping or having a bath.  I remember I joked about this once, I said “India must have the most cleanest and well rested actors in the world, with how much they sleep and how much they bathe.”

So you spoke to Shabana and in three days she was onboard….

Yeah, that bigger problem in terms of time and casting was very rarely the person waiting to give us an answer, it was always us wondering whether we should cast the person or not.  We were quite fortunate in that respect.  The approach we had, we didn’t have the usual suspects in terms of the crew, I really spent some time figuring out who are the crew members I want on this film, so they were all people who had both worked in India and worked overseas, and also the script had a certain kind of humor in it so I think any actor saw that the way we did the audition process was very kind of formal and efficient, we never wasted time, we always communicated to them where they were in the process.  Otherwise actors are so used to not hearing, they don’t hear for so long and they know they’re not cast, but we always called them up the next day and said “This happened, we’re looking at two or three people, you’re in the running” and a lot of people told me it was those little things that made them say “I want to work on this film.”

In fact Darshan Jariwala, who later played Sanjeev Patel, I initially cast him as Sanya’s father, and he had two scenes, which was later cut from the film, there was a monologue in the beginning and the parents at the contest at the hotel, but then he decided – he was doing Gandhi My Father and a bunch of other things as well – he decided to do it because he said “After meeting you for half an hour, I wan’t to work with you.”  Later, as we went further into the process, I realized that I’d miscast the Patels, and the day before we shot I recast all the Patel men which totally sent tremors through my crew and screaming and yelling from some people like “Oh my God, you’re sinking the movie!” and I said “No, if I leave these four people in these roles…,” then I said ”I have to do it.  We just have to do it.”  The reason I thought that was we had a reading, the full cast reading, two days before the first day of shoot, and I realized that I’d made a mistake.  Somehow the Patels weren’t jelling, and they were being played stereotypically and not with the empathy that I felt was in the characters and in the writing, and we went on and we recast.  So I grabbed Darshan from within the cast already because it’ll be easy to cast Sanya’s father, which it was, and then we went and got the other guys.  I cancelled all my meetings and started auditioning the day before shoot for those three roles.

The costume designed was saying “We’ve done all the stuff, we’ve got measurements!” and I said “Just chill, we’ve got to do it” and the four guys we kind of took out of those roles, we gave one a role somewhere else in the film, and two of the others were like “Look, whatever happened so far, we’d love to work together in the future,” and the fourth guy was totally pissed off, I don’t blame him.  It’s not his fault, it was my mistake, I should have seen it earlier.

How difficult was it to get Shaan to sign on for the film?

So Shaan was pretty easy.  We needed someone and Shabana said “Do you want me to call up Shaan?” and she did, he wanted to know how long, and we said if he could come for two days, he said “Fine” and that was it.

Where did you film the scenes in the hotel?

On the set, because we looked at what we wanted to do in a hotel and just realized that the flexibility I wanted in terms of moving the camera or having the amount of time to do more takes if I needed it, I just wouldn’t get in a real hotel, especially no one’s gonna take their lobby and give it to us, we had to construct it.

So that was all done over in India?

Yeah, we looked at it and realized it was cheaper to do it in India.  In hindsight I don’t know if I would have still done that, getting a set like that built in India and making it US-like … what was really rewarding was I went to a really early screening and someone in the audience said “I’ve been to that hotel in New Jersey!” and I thought “Oh my God, we did it!  We pulled it off!”

And so I’m assuming then that the auditorium scene too was filmed in India?

That was filmed in India for a simple reason: to get a thousand Indian extras outside of India would not have been possible.  They just wouldn’t come, or they’d come for a lark, show up and say “Oh, a shoot, a shoot!” and an hour later be like “This is really boring.”  And the ones who are professional extras, cost five times what you would pay in India, so when you have a thousand of them, and you have to feed a thousand of them and clothe a thousand of them, it really becomes expensive.  Very early we decided that the auditorium scene would have to be shot in India.

To close, here’s one of the happiest things to come out of this film, as far as I’m concerned: the Dhol Beat song composed by Samrat Chakrabarti and sung by he and Ajay Naidu.  The video was directed by Nina Paley and Manish Acharya.