The Lunchbox dives into chaos of Mumbai’s dabbawallas

Ahead of The Lunchbox screenings at the Dubai International Film Festival, the film's star Nimrit Kaur and director Ritesh Batra talk about telling a romantic tale between two people who have never met.

Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox. Courtesy Sikhya Entertainment
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Sci-fi and fantasy films are all very well, but the best movies are often those based on things people can instantly relate to. Like Mumbai’s committed contingent of 5,000 dabbawallas deliver more than 350,000 lunches per day to office workers across the megacity.

For the last 120 years the service has been used by billions and director Ritesh Batra knew he'd struck gold when his movie The Lunchbox, based on the idea, scooped the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award also known as Grand Rail d'Or at Cannes.

“It just seems to have touched the hearts of a nation and much further beyond,” said Batra ahead of the film’s first Dubai International Film Festival screening Wednesday night.

The Lunchbox is competing for the prestigious Muhr AsiaAfrica Awards in the Feature Film category and, having already been the toast of festivals around the world, has a good chance of taking the top spot.

“Awards aren’t really something I think about,” said Batra. “We shouldn’t worry about what a film is worth in terms of what it wins. It must be judged on whether the story can capture the hearts of the masses.”

A surprising statement given that The Lunchbox hasn't been without controversy when it comes to accolades. It was hailed as a strong contender for India's official entry for the 86th Academy Awards Best Foreign Film Category but lost out to the Gujarati film The Good Road. The decision immediately sparked a very public row between cast, crew and the Indian Film Commission.

All that aside, The Lunchbox has smashed Indian box office records and has a large global appeal.

All that aside, a heart-warming tale is played out beautifully by Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur who strangely, or perhaps not given the plot, didn't film any scenes together.

“When I took the part I didn’t know who had been cast,” said the relatively undiscovered Kaur. “He’s someone I imagined would be perfect for the lead when I was reading the script but I didn’t know. It was so incredible to finally be working with him. He’s someone I’ve grown up watching. An inspiring actor who has inspired so many stories.”

Every morning the Dabbawallahs - a hereditary profession - deliver hot meals from the kitchens of housewives to the offices of their husbands, and then return the empty lunchboxes back to the homes in the afternoon. Most are illiterate, navigating the chaotic streets using a complex coding system of colors and symbols to deliver dabbas in the labyrinth that is Mumbai.

A Harvard University study once estimated only one in four million lunchboxes is ever delivered to the wrong address. The Lunchbox focuses on one of the millions of women who lovingly prepares the home-cooked meals to send off each day.

“The food I’m making is going to Khan’s character by mistake,” says Kaur. “Because of this we never actually film scenes together.”

The actress says she was inspired in her work on the film by her father, a member of the Indian Army who died in a terrorist attack in Kashmir in 1994.

“My father is my hero in every way and he was with me at every shoot. I grew up a little too fast but it has prepared me with emotion for roles just like this one.”

Bridging the intimacy between two actors distanced by the story meant Batra, a new father, had to step up.

“I thought it would be harder but everything came together,” he said. “I had my first choice of every actor and this helped because they were so professional. It just worked. Maybe I was lucky.”

Filming in Mumbai was the real challenge, he said.

“In order to film in Mumbai you have to first accept, and learn, to embrace the chaos of the city. You can arrive on set and think you’re about to film and then something throws the whole game,” he said. “It’s a chaos that makes life difficult for a director but also adds an emotion you wouldn’t have if you filmed elsewhere.”

His 14-month-old daughter, born during shooting, was another source of emotional inspiration.

“Marriage and becoming a father allowed me to understand and connect emotionally with my story,” he said. “The woman’s story came further to the foreground.”

In 2009, Batra was selected for the Sundance Writers and Directors labs for his feature project The Story of Ram. He was also named the Sundance Time Warner Storytelling Fellow and an Annenburg Fellow, and was part of the Graduate Film Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

“The one thing I will always remember from studying is not to take advice,” said the 34-year-old. “It’s important to find your own process. Develop specific rituals and find out what works for you. Every day on set should be a learning experience for everyone.”

On Wednesday night Batra and Kaur joined cast member Nawazuddin Siddiqui for the red carpet at Madinat Jumeirah ahead of the film’s first DIFF screening. Irrfan Khan – star of films including Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire - did not attend despite earlier being confirmed.

There is a second screening of The Lunchbox on Friday at 9pm at Mall of the Emirates, Vox Cinema, screen six.

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