Three years ago, on September 20, an independent film called The Lunchbox opened in theaters and quietly transformed the way the world looked at Indian stories.
Before its Indian release, The Lunchbox enjoyed a premiere at the International Critics' Week at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Grand Rail d'Or or the Viewers' Choice Award. It then swung to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), wowing the audience and wooing the critics, eventually picking up the Toronto Film Critics Association award, a first for any Indian filmmaker.
"It was all very overwhelming. At that time, I didn't know my film was going to have such a huge impact. It's turned out to be a real gift to everyone," Batra says over the phone from the picturesque hilly mountains of Colorado Springs.
He is currently put up in the American town to shoot for his next, Netflix's film adaptation of Kent Haruf's poignant novel, Our Souls at Night.
"With Lunchbox, it became clear that it was the film the that was winning and not me per se. If that movie wasn't good enough, I probably wouldn't have reached here today," Batra says modestly, constantly underplaying his role in conceiving the film.
The Lunchbox released in India to a rousing box-office reception for an indie film and tremendous critical acclaim. Film aficionados were convinced that India had finally produced a movie worth contending in the Oscars. From journalists to filmmakers to self-appointed social media critics, everyone was deeply engrossed in conversations about how Batra's debut film will fare in the Best Foreign Language category at the Oscars.
The buzz was real. And the excitement was only growing.
The film about an unloved housewife (Nimrat Kaur) finding an unlikely companion (Irrfan Khan) and what could probably be another chance at love had resonated unanimously and praise was trickling down from all quarters.
However, the road to the Oscars, in India, is paved by the Selection Committee of the Film Federation of India (FFI). In 2013, it decided to send Gyan Correa's Gujarati film, The Good Road, as India's official entry to the Oscars, a decision that was decried by many, including some of Bollywood's top filmmakers.
The news was especially heartbreaking as for the first time, we had a film that was backed by a major American studio – Sony Pictures Classics – one that had deep pockets to lobby for it in LA when the time would come. But The Lunchbox' Oscar journey was cut short mid-road, triggering a roaring controversy and a bitter war of words within the fraternity.
In hindsight, how does he look back at the entire episode?
"I don't care about it or even think about it now. I have never had a moment to do so as I've been keeping so busy. The Lunchbox did a lot for me, beyond what I could have imagined. It spoke for itself and it still remains special. Having said that, I still can't process and I still don't know why that happened. What they feel about their decision now is what we should be asking them (the FFI)," Batra says thoughtfully.
He adds, "The movie did a lot for giving recognition to the concept of telling Indian stories to the world. People weren't expecting it. It generated a lot of interest for Indian stories abroad and that's truly a great thing in itself."
What Batra says is quite accurate. On a recent trip to Vietnam, I encountered a couple who were from a remote town in Ireland. Over glasses of wine, when the topic of Indian cinema came up, they said the only Indian film they'd seen in a theater close to their home was The Lunchbox, a film that left them deeply moved and craving for Indian food.
Not just Ireland, The Lunchbox released in over 90 countries, including places like Chile, Peru, Finland, and Siberia, most of which weren't conventional markets for Hindi films. It truly opened up an untapped audience, making them sample an Indian story like they hadn't before.
Batra laughs satisfyingly when I mention the Irish couple to him and fondly recalls shooting the film with Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and Irrfan Khan in the interiors of Mumbai.
Comparing The Sense of an Ending, the British film he's just finished with acclaimed performers Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling to The Lunchbox, he says, "The Sense of an Ending is interwoven in two timelines. While The Lunchbox was concentrated in specific locations, with this film, we were never at one place for more than two days."
The film is an adaptation of Julian Barnes' Man Booker Prize-winning novel that goes by the same name and has been produced by the BBC.
When I bring up that almost all the characters in The Sense of an Ending are emotionally withdrawn and the book in itself isn't exactly The Great Gatsby in the sense that it doesn't lend itself too well to film, Batra agrees and says it was "a very challenging book to adapt, much harder than I initially thought."
But he is quick to point out that he's taken certain visual liberties to make the source material cinematically appealing. As for the structure -- the book dwells into an aged man recalling his past -- it took a lot of missteps on part of the crew, especially on the editing table, to get the film a consistent narrative.
The book's author, Julian Barnes, saw the film only after completion, and Batra revealed that he 'loved it'.
"The movie has to be different from the book in the sense that they've to be cousins and not siblings. But, the soul of the book has been retained in the film," he says adding that the diversity in the cast made the experience different from The Lunchbox while the budget itself was way too high in comparison.
The film is currently under review by the British Board of Film Classification and is expected to open in theaters early next year. A festival release of the film is also in the works.
Having worked in industries as varied as the American, British, and the Indian, Batra is acutely aware of the intricate differences in the functioning of each. He feels that while the industries are fundamentally structured in a similar fashion, cultural differences do tend to seep in.
"You feel cultural differences, especially in the way people communicate. In the UK, people are way too polite. It takes a while for you to understand them. When they say something is a 'little difficult' to do, what they mean is that it's 'impossible.' So, there are different degrees of severity in the communication of each culture. In contrast, people are much more direct in Mumbai."
Batra terms his experience of directing veteran British actor Jim Broadbent 'unforgettable' and says that the two collaborated at every stage, with Broadbent placing a lot of faith in him, especially since there wasn't a lot of time for rehearsals.
But the director seems more nervous to direct American legends Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in Our Souls at Night.
He's been hired by Netflix to direct a pre-written screenplay, which has been penned by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, whose previous work includes (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now.
"The last time Jane and Robert worked together was in 1979 in The Electric Horseman. I just got a call from the producers to direct this project and I was obviously elated. The casting had already been done. Right now I'm just giving myself time with the material, taking it all in, making a few changes to make the screenplay my own, and allowing myself the space to be able to direct it."
However, with two major Hollywood heavyweights collaborating after a long period, he is feeling the jitters. "Of course there's a big responsibility to direct Jane and Rob. And then there's the material too. There's fans of the book -- people who love the book absolutely adore it as it reminds them of a moment in time in their life. The pressure to please all of them is very real."
While he maintains an air of modesty, it must be said that he's one director who's managed to successfully crossover in a big way. No other Indian director, barring Shekhar Kapur, has penetrated Hollywood. Vidhu Vinod Chopra tried with last year's Broken Horses, but the film failed to make any impact in the international market.
So does Batra feel that he jumped too quickly from The Sense of an Ending to Our Souls at Night, from Britain to America, just like that?
"You won't believe – the day I finished The Sense of an Ending is when the Netflix call happened. Incidentally, it was also the day when Britan exited the European Union, it was the day of the Brexit vote."
A sense of an ending indeed.
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