Batra reminisces about Lunch Box’s missed Oscar chance

Ritesh Batra

Ritesh Batra…”We should be asking Film Federation of India.”

Three years ago, on September 20, an independent film called The Lunchbox opened in US theatres and 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 was also screened at 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 in 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 American legends Robert Redford and Jane Fonda .

“With Lunchbox, it became clear that it was the film that was winning and not me per se. If that movie wasn’t good enough, I probably wouldn’t have reached here today,” Ritesh Batra says modestly, constantly underplaying his role in conceiving the film. 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.

“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 theatre close to their home was The Lunchbox, a film that left them deeply moved and craving for Indian food. – CINEWS

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