In 2007, director Ritesh Batra set out to make a documentary about dabbawallahs, workers who transport food to and from workplaces as part of an intricately-run lunchbox delivery system in Mumbai. After immersing himself in their world for a couple weeks, Batra became fascinated by how much these dabbawallahs knew about their clients just from picking up and dropping the lunchboxes for years, sometimes decades. Instead of filming a documentary, he found himself inspired to write his own fictional story.
"It started as movie about a woman who's trying to fix her marriage through her cooking," says Batra. "And then one day I thought, 'What if she [accidentally] ended up cooking for someone else?'"
In Batra's debut feature film The Lunchbox -- which premiered to acclaim in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and has since won three Asian Film Awards (Best Screenplay, Actor, and Film) and three Filmfare Awards (Critics Awards for Best Film, Debut Director and Best Supporting Actor) -- Nimrat Kaur plays a young, middle-class housewife named Ila who feels her marriage slipping away. She decides to put some extra effort into making her husband's lunch and is overjoyed when the metal lunchbox is returned completely eaten. Assuming her husband loved her meal, she's surprised when he barely even mentions it when he gets home from work. Turns out, it got misdelivered to an older insurance claims adjuster Saajan (Irrfan Khan) who is about to retire. She sends the stranger a letter, thanking him for finishing her food, and they begin an epistolary correspondence (through the lunchbox) that begins very casually but eventually provides them both with a much-needed outlet to discuss their deepest hopes, fears, and disappointments.
For a film titled The Lunchbox, it's inevitable that food is an extremely important element in the film. "In the beginning, the food Ila makes is very complex," says Batra. "She makes paneer kofta, her husband's favorite dish. There are a lot of ingredients and steps, and she loses herself in the food, not seeing the real problem in her marriage."
It was important to Batra that the food choices always came from the characters, somehow defining Ila and Saajan's relationship and its evolution. "As the story grows, the food becomes simpler," he continues. "At one point, she makes fried okra with onions. Still good, but quick and easy to cook, for Indian standards."
Once they become more comfortable with each other, they bond over nostalgic tales of their pasts, and Ila makes Saajan a spring apple stew, a suggestion Batra took from actress Kaur. It's a more old-fashioned dish that reminded them of something their grandmothers would cook back when they were young. Through the exchange and consumption of food, the two characters who have never met can imagine their own secret fantasies about each other -- what the other person looks like, what their voices sound like, and what might happen if they ever met each other in person.
Irrfan Khan, who American audiences know from films such as Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and A Mighty Heart, was Batra's first choice for the leading role from the very beginning. ("I would have had to rewrite my script if he didn't agree to do it," says Batra.) Both Khan and Kaur, a theatre actress who Batra spotted while she was in the production of Baghdad Wedding, spend a lot of time onscreen by themselves -- making food, eating food, writing letters, reading letters -- so the director needed actors who could be comfortable with loneliness. Though Ila is a neglected housewife and Saajan is a widower, it was important to Batra that neither of them projected a "victim mentality." Ila, especially, even though she spends her days by herself in her apartment, is someone who's actively trying to make her situation better, he points out.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui's character Shaikh is thrown into the mix as the one who will take over Saajan's job when he retires. The overeager Shaikh is someone Saajan at first blows off, uninterested in training his youthful replacement, but eventually connects with. "[Shaikh's] character, for me, was always Bombay," says Batra, of the often-overwhelming metropolis where his story is set. "He has the ability to adapt, he finds family everywhere he goes, and he keeps changing. The other characters are not very adaptable, hence they're not very happy. Whereas, he's everything they're not."
Director Batra himself has adapted to multiple types of lives. Growing up in India, he came to the States for college to study business and worked as a consultant for a few years before quitting to go to film school at NYU. After less than a year, he got into the Sundance Writers and Directors labs. Instead of returning to finish film school, he's been making shorts and developing his own projects since.
As a result of studying film in the US, Batra admires many American directors, including Jason Reitman and David O'Russell.
"I love that they can make movies that can both play in arthouse cinema or commercial theaters," says Batra. And that's what he dreamed of for The Lunchbox.
"People can experience [The Lunchbox] as a romantic comedy, or they can experience it as a story about two lonely people searching through the baggage of their lives," he continues. "I love stories that can work at different levels."
The Lunchbox opens Friday, February 28 in New York and Los Angeles. It will expand to other major cities including San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Chicago next week on March 7.