When A Lost 'Lunchbox' Leads To Love, A Mistake Becomes A Miracle

Mar 2, 2014
Originally published on March 2, 2014 4:09 pm

How many ways are there to tell a love story? More than you may think — especially in Mumbai, India, a city of millions. The Lunchbox, written and directed by Ritesh Batra, is one such story — a love that blossoms from a mistaken food delivery.

In the film, a young housewife sends a lunchbox out to her husband every day using a dabawallah, one of India's reliable lunchbox deliverymen. One day, that lunchbox goes to the wrong man, a widower played by Irrfan Khan. Over time, they begin pouring out their souls through letters in the lunchbox. In this relationship, physically distant yet romantically intimate, even the food itself conveys emotion.

Batra speaks with NPR's Arun Rath about what's peculiar — and universal — in his romance by lost lunch. "To me," Batra says, "it was always a story of these two lonely souls sifting through the baggage of their lives through this connection of the misdelivered lunchbox."


Interview Highlights

On the vast — and remarkably accurate — practice of lunchbox delivery in Mumbai

There are actually 5,000 lunchbox deliverymen, and they deliver hot meals from the housewives at home to their husbands in the offices. They use only public transport, and bicycles and wheelbarrows and trains and buses. And they work in groups. Along the way, the lunchbox changes hands many times from one group to another, till it reaches its destination. Back in the day, a lot of them used to be illiterate, so they have devised this coding system of numbers, letters and colors that they all can decipher.

That's one of their secrets to why this works. It's a 120-year-old tradition. They deliver thousands of lunchboxes a day, and the statistic is that only one out of six million goes to the wrong address. The movie, of course, is about that one lunchbox that goes to the wrong address.

On what these deliverymen thought of his decision to feature their mistake

The dabbawalas — the lunchbox deliverymen — of Bombay were intimately involved with us in the making of the film. People always ask: 'They have such an extraordinary success rate, so weren't they mad that you were making the film about that one mistake?'

But in the film, you know, we never explain the mistake. And I always told them that if something is happening one out of six million times, it's a miracle not a mistake. So, the movie is really about the miracle.

On a romance in which the two leads remain so far apart

It was always such an integral part of the script that these two people would get closer together but never meet physically in the film ... When you have a relationship with people you've never seen — as people often do on the Internet — there's a sort of flight of fancy happening inside both the characters, because they are imagining what this other person looks like and what they would say to them when they would meet. They each had their own secret story that I didn't want to know.

On what inspired him to make the movie

I grew up in Bombay, but I moved to the States when I was 18 to study. When I was growing up, my mom would send my dad a lunchbox, but I didn't think it was unique or special or interesting. When you leave and you go back, you see things that you didn't see before.

Initially, I wanted to make a documentary about [the delivery men], so I embedded myself with them for a couple of weeks. We became friends, and they started telling me these little germs of stories — like so-and-so housewife, she takes too long or tries something new every day. I just became more interested in all of those stories. I quit the documentary; I abandoned it and started writing this.

On how well the film has been received in India

It's been a really pleasant surprise, actually, because when we were making the film, we thought it's an Indian story, of course, but with universal themes so it can travel. We never thought it would do well in India, because it doesn't have songs. But India always surprises you.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

How many ways are there to tell a love story? More than you may think. Ritesh Batra's film "The Lunchbox" is a story of a love that blossoms from a screwed-up food delivery.

RITESH BATRA: When I was writing it and making it, you know, to me, it was always a story of these two lonely souls sifting through the baggage of their lives through this connection of the misdelivered lunchbox. And a relationship begins between them through notes in the lunchbox. It truly becomes a love story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LUNCHBOX")

NIMRAT KAUR: (As Ila) (Foreign language spoken)

RATH: Nimrat Kaur plays Ila, a young housewife. She sends a lunchbox out to her husband every day using a dabawallah, one of India's reliable lunchbox delivery men. One day, that lunchbox goes to the wrong man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LUNCHBOX")

IRRFAN KHAN: (As Saajan Fernandes) Dear Ila, the salt was fine today. The chili was a bit on the higher side.

RATH: Irrfan Khan of "Life of Pi" and "Slumdog Millionaire" plays Saajan Fernandes, a widower just one month shy of retirement and longing for connection. Over time, they begin pouring out their souls through letters in the lunchbox.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LUNCHBOX")

KHAN: (As Saajan Fernandes) I think we forget things if we have no one to tell them to.

RATH: In this relationship, the food itself conveys emotion.

BATRA: When he first gets her food, she essentially infused herself in it. And, you know, he tasted it, and that's really the - sort of the beginning of their relationship.

RATH: (Unintelligible) a sense of just the - kind of the insane scale of what actually happens in Mumbai with this lunchbox delivery because they're going from individual home to individuals and businesses. Can you explain that, because it's kind of crazy.

BATRA: There are actually 5,000 lunchbox delivery men. And they deliver hot meals from the housewives at homes to their husbands in the offices. And they use only public transport and bicycles and wheelbarrows and trains and buses. And they work in groups. Along the way, a lunchbox changes hands many times from one group to another till it reaches its destination.

Back in the day, a lot of them used to be illiterate. So they've devised this coding system of numbers, letters and colors that, you know, they all can decipher. And that's one of their big secrets to why this works. And it's a 120-year-old tradition. And, you know, they deliver thousands of lunchboxes a day. And the statistic is that only one in six million goes to the wrong address. And the movie, of course, is about that one lunchbox that goes to the wrong address.

RATH: Right. That's the dramatic incident that really triggers the dramatic action in the film. And could you explain how that happens?

BATRA: The dabbawalas, the lunchbox deliverymen of Bombay, they were intimately involved with us in the film. And people always ask, you know, they have such an extraordinary success rate, so weren't they angry or mad that you were making the film about that one mistake?

But, you know, in the film, we never explain the mistake. And I always told them that, you know, if something is happening one in six million times, it's a miracle. It's not a mistake. So the movie is really about the miracle.

RATH: What's amazing about the love story, well, it almost seems like a challenge you make for a director that you have your two romantic leads who are really never with each other. They only communicate through these letters. You know, how did you do that with these actors where all they have to react to are letters not each other?

BATRA: It was always such an integral part of the script that, you know, these two people would get closer together but never meet physically in the film. The actors always had - you know, I could tell when I would see them in the monitor or on set - you know, when you have a relationship with someone you've never seen. As often people do with people on the Internet, there is sort of flight of fantasy happening inside both the characters, because they are imagining what this other person looks like and, you know, what they would say to them when they would meet. And they each had their own secret story that, you know, I didn't want to know.

RATH: Amazing performances. You know, it's one of the things that can be disarming about India for visitors, and especially in a city like Mumbai, the way that the ancient exists alongside the modern. And that's also really running strong in this film where the dabbawalas, as you say, have been going for over 100 years, but then they're communicating through letters, as one of the characters points out in the age of the Internet.

BATRA: Sure. And thank you for noticing that, you know? I mean, India is that kind of place, you know, where so many times exist together at once. We have an office in the film, actually, that was always in the script and it's an actual location. And we found it quite by chance. And everything is done manually. And there's not one computer there.

So all we had to do when we got into that location was embellish it with more files than it had, you know? And down the street there might be a swanky sort of call center with computers and, you know, the modern stuff.

RATH: Where did you get this inspired idea for the dabbawalas to inadvertently connect people romantically?

BATRA: You know, I grew up in Bombay, but I moved to the States when I was 18 to study. When I was growing up, you know, my mom would send my dad a lunchbox, but I didn't think it was unique or special or interesting. You know, when you leave and you go back, you see things that you didn't see before.

Initially, I wanted to make a documentary about them, so I had embedded myself with them for a couple of weeks. We became friends, and they started telling me these little germs of stories, you know, like, so-and-so housewife, she takes too long because she tries something new every day. So I just became more interested in all those stories. So I quit the documentary. I abandoned it and started writing this.

RATH: How has the film done in India?

BATRA: It's been a really pleasant surprise, actually, because when we were making the film, you know, we thought it's an Indian story, of course, but with sort of universal themes. And it can travel. But we never thought it would do well in India, because, you know, it doesn't have songs.

RATH: Mm-hmm. Even without the songs, it's not a Bollywood romance in any...

BATRA: Yeah.

RATH: It's kind of the opposite of that.

BATRA: Exactly. So we never thought it would do well in India. But, you know, India always surprises you.

RATH: Ritesh Batra is the writer and director of the film "The Lunchbox." Ritesh, thank you so much.

BATRA: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.