The lead pair of – The Lunchbox – Irrfan and Nimrat Kaur in conversation with the Box Office India team
Irrfan: I wish I was that fortunate!
Nimrat Kaur (NK): (Laughs) I actually read the script before I knew that Irrfan was in the film. Oddly enough, when I read the part, I was hoping he would be cast for the role. Just like, when you read a book, when you read a script too, you tend to visualise actors playing different roles.
BOI: You visualised Irrfan?
NK: Oh yes, from the word go! I knew that Ritesh Batra (director) had written the film with Irrfan in mind, by the second draft or so.
BOI: Sadly, you don’t have any scenes with Irrfan.
NK: Yeah, and that’s the USP of the film. I did have a problem with that, and I did tell Ritesh that at least ek scene ya ek fantasy song toh rakh lo hamari saath mein. But he didn’t agree. I think that’s what works for the film.
BOI: Irrfan, how did your journey with the film begin?
Irrfan: Guneet (Monga) sent me the script and I connected with the story instantly. It is a sweet film with innocent emotions. I had wanted to do a love story but I wasn’t getting a chance. In this film, the emotion was there but I was unsure about the director. So I watched a few of his short films and I saw that emotion come through in his films. Like this one short film, where Ritesh had just captured people talking.
In fact, there was this one scene where all the actress is doing is speaking over the phone in a restaurant but the scene was haunting. That’s shows the power of the director. You know what he sees and what he chooses to give the audience. So that’s why I was convinced to do The Lunchbox.
BOI: And when was this?
Irrfan: I think when I was shooting for Life Of Pi. I was in New York when Guneet emailed me. She also told me that the script was at NFDC’s Film Bazaar. It had won an award at their Film Lab. But it was the emotion of the film that spoke to me.
NK: It’s like you have your dreams and aspirations, but there are some things that will surprise you and take a film somewhere where it was not even anticipated to go. Somewhere, this film has done more than I had dreamt about.
Irrfan: As an actor, the best thing about doing a film is when the story starts speaking to the audience and creates a memorable experience for them… watching people getting overwhelmed by your story. I had that experience when I did Bestsellers with Tigmanshu (Dhulia) although that was for television. And when The Warrior released at BAFTA, it was the first time I had travelled overseas. I sat with the audience and when I came out of the theatre, the audience looked as if they had been spiritually cleansed!
Emotions like these can stay in the hearts of people for a very long time, and that’s unique for me as an actor. That’s what happened with The Lunchbox. I was in Delhi when I watched the film for the first time. I think the screening was for NDTV and it was said that it was the best film and that the people couldn’t s top smiling after watching it.
BOI: In the era of emails and mobile phones, you agreed to do a film about letters and sharing handwritten notes. Were you apprehensive about the youth connecting with it?
Irrfan: That was the strength of the film. What we do with stories is we bring back emotions that we have forgotten. There are certain emotions that get hidden or suppressed. So you bring them to the surface, experience them and relish them.
BOI: There were these personal notes in the film about food, the relationship between two neighbours or colleagues.
Irrfan: (Cuts in) The audience could basically connect to the emotions. Remember our old movies, where two Muslim protagonists, a girl and a boy, would go to college and they would bump into each other and their books would fall. They would bend to pick them up and the girl’s gaze would meet the boy’s. A spark would ignite and phir zindagi bhar ke liye pyaar ho gaya. Those are the emotions we have learnt from our films.
So, sometimes, when two people are longing for something, nature conspires to connect the two of them.
NK: And there’s nostalgia about letters. There’s something about old paper like hand-written notes or letters that you preserve. We don’t hold on to much these days. And food, for that matter, is something that has an emotional connection. There are also a lot of memories attached to food. Little things, like, ‘Yeh hamne wahan khaya tha, uss dhabe pe, woo road trip pe.’ So whether it’s that taste that this film is catering to or plain nostalgia… that’s there in those shots.
BOI: Irrfan, whose character was most challenging – the one essayed by Nawazuddin (Siddiqui), Nimrat or yourself?
Irrfan: It’s very difficult to make a comparison like this. I was very concerned about Nimrat’s role because it was very challenging. But she brought much more to it than I had imagined. The way she has performed and charmed the audience is commendable. I don’t know how she did it. More than the fact that she looks beautiful, her inner beauty radiates onto screen. An actor’s job is to invade the minds and hearts of the audience and charm them. I think we all managed to do that.
NK: I knew Irrfan was on the other side, and the emotions automatically came to me. (Laughs)
BOI: Nimrat, did you have any reservations about doing a non-glamorous role, especially for your debut as lead actor? This is definitely not the norm in the industry.
NK: Actually, it was a blessing in disguise. There was a cheesy one-liner in a book that I once read. It said, if you want something really badly, the universe will conspire to give that to you. So I think I found myself in a place where I really wanted to be. I know that from the choices I have made and what I have chosen not to do. Up until now, it was becoming difficult to give legitimacy to the choices I was making or not making.
Now it is easier for me to justify the choices I have made. I want to believe there is a bigger design at work. And I think there is nothing better I could have thought of to start off with.
BOI: So from here on, are you going to be more experimental with a similar genre or are you open to doing typical Bollywood films?
NK: This is my first film and I am starting my career, and I believe your initial work chooses you. I don’t think it’s the other way around. So if I read a script and I want to see that girl on screen, and I see myself as trying to want to bring that flavour to that person, whether a Chennai Express or a Lunchbox… I think it’s about how I continue to surprise myself. I will try not to repeat roles and will do roles that appeal to me.
BOI: Irrfan, you are doing the best of films, even in Hollywood and this one had a new director and you play a middle-aged guy. Were you concerned?
Irrfan: Yes, that was a concern for me. Everything was new, including the director but the emotion of the film kept me tied to the script. Old age was a concern, because…
BOI: You feared being typecast?
Irrfan: No, not that. All across the country, old age is not respected. We don’t age gracefully. Unlike in Hollywood, where there are good roles even for elderly characters. In India, we have a tendency to hide our age. 50 ka hoon phir bhi kahunga ki 40 saal ka hoon. I thought it would be boring to play the role, because there was no one to interact with on screen. I only interacted with Nawaz. And this fellow is sort of a lonely character so he’d either be at work or at home, wallowing in loneliness. So, yes, I had my apprehensions.
NK: I once met him on the sets and he told me, ‘Main bore ho gaya hoon, main pak chukka hoon! (Laughs)
BOI: Irrfan, you are also the EP (Executive Producer) of the film. Why did you decide to do that?
Irrfan: Paise hi nahi the inke paas dene ke liye!
Irrfan: Festival films have not really made a dent in their perception. There are films that did very well at festivals but did not release here. Over the last two years, films that are not typically formula films have done very well at the box office. Those films have changed perceptions and I hope that our audience supports those films so that our cinema grows… so that we can really celebrate 100 years, or 10 years of cinema or whatever. Because, frankly, I feel there’s nothing to really celebrate in the 100 years of cinema.
What did we celebrate? That we have survived? Celebration is justified when the films have gone beyond boundaries, films like that made by Raj Khosla, Guru Dutt, Vijay Anand or Mehboob Khan. They dealt with complicated issues and also made for fantastic commercial entertainment. They dealt with philosophical issues. Look at Guide, what a subject! And so ahead of its time. Pakeezah, Ashok Kumar’s Mahal. The country was in a phase of hope and our films reflected that. I think this new breed of audience is pressuring the industry. And new directors who have taken a new approach are good for us.
BOI: Do you see a revival?
Irrfan: Yes. But I hope it doesn’t veer towards art cinema. Filmmaking is a commercial art and it has to make money. You can’t preach about things like hum desh ko badal denge. Cinema se woh nahi hoga. Cinema engage karne ke liye hai. If you can smuggle your idea through cinema and talk about certain issues that way, that’s fine. But I don’t believe in films that are about issues and pseudo-intellectual films.
BOI: As an actor, how important is it to strike a balance between commercial films and alternative films?
Irrfan: It gives you a choice. As Nimrat says, we want to keep on trying different roles, we want to surprise ourselves. We want a balance and you have an audience who watches everything. Sometimes you sign films you don’t believe in, but you do it for survival. That’s the worst situation to be in. I curse myself when I do such films.
BOI: Has the perception towards Indian cinema changed overseas?
Irrfan: Indian cinema doesn’t really have that kind of presence overseas, except for films like Life Of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire. But these are not really Indian films. They saw a possibility in the market. The business of Life Of Pi was around Rs 7,000 crore. And there is no angrez in the film, apart from the writer. The story is based in India and has Indian characters. Possibilities zarur dikhti hain ki yahan film banayi ja sakti hain, but yahan ki filmon ne haven’t made any mark. You should watch films like The Lunchbox. If these films travel, they can make a mark.
NK: Oh! It was overwhelming. At the end of the screening, the entire audience stood up and they were clapping in rhythm with that song. We received a ten-minute standing ovation. I think all of us were in tears.
After that, it was a domino effect. There were more screening requested. I remember walking on the road and people in different languages were talking about The Lunchbox. So there was a buzz and Irrfan was a star there and they called me ‘Ifon Khan’. (Laughs)
Irrfan: Please tell them about the buyers.
NK: The buyers were jostling each other to get to our film.
Irrfan: It was a success!
NK: There were five people who got up and walked out of the first screening, and Ritesh was, like, ‘There are five people who got up.’ Later, we realised they were buyers who left the screening so that they could go buy the film before anyone else did! (Laughs)
Irrfan: We were just so excited. Guneet kept saying, ‘Isne le liya, usne le liya.’
NK: Stock market ban gaya tha hamara screening.
BOI: There is a concern that you have set the bar for yourself and everything else you do will be compared to your performance in this film.
NK: Concern? It’s a big worry. Every day, I say, ‘Oh no!’ I am so spoilt right now. Ab lagta hain itna toh hona chahiye (laughs).
BOI: Irrfan, you just mentioned how buyers were falling over each other to buy the film. But back here, there were no buyers. After Cannes, Karan Johar and UTV came on board and the whole perception changed.
Irrfan: A studio cannot completely understand cinema. Cinema is a creative process. Look what happened with Slumdog Millionaire. The studio that believed in the film said they were going to release it on DVD. Our producer and Danny Boyle almost got a heart attack. Somehow, they completed the film and showed it to Fox Star. Around 200 people watched it and said they wanted the film to release. And the studio, the earlier studio, was wondering what on earth they saw in the film!
So you cannot really have 100 per cent understanding of a film. And it will remain that way. The connection is from heart to heart.
BOI: Have you ever been in a predicament where a film of yours remained in the cans for years?
Irrfan: Fortunately, I haven’t worked with producers whose films haven’t released.
When I started acting, I was hugely influenced by Naseer sahab in my first play. I used to wonder, ‘Agar Naseer sahab ne meri performance dekhi toh kya kahenge?’ When I was in NSD, I used to imagine that if I ever bumped into Naseer sahab, I would almost faint! He has inspired us; he has shown us a new way. Everyone else was learning a dance step, or to ride a horse, aur maine toh ghursawari bhi sikh li thi. But Naseer sir showed us a different path. Now when he says in interviews that he envies me, it’s enough for me. Also, recently, when Amitabh Bachchan sir complimented me, it was a different feeling.
BOI: Now that you are known overseas, does it boost the prospects of your smaller film at festival?
Irrfan: For sure. It doesn’t guarantee the success of the film but I am noticed. When journalists from India go to festivals to interview Hollywood stars, they talk about me, and they come back and tell me.
Irrfan: I have worked with many first-time directors. Vishal Bhardwaj was very new, Asif Kapadia was new, Tigmanshu Dhulia was new… Fortunately for them, those films became the biggest hits of their careers. The second film is always very difficult, and the first film is very special. I don’t look at whether someone is new or old. All I look for is their knack for storytelling.
BOI: But now can you judge whether a director has talent or not?
Irrfan: Not unless you have seen their earlier work. Also, how a film turns out is always a surprise. It’s like marriage. It may look fantastic on paper but you never really know how it will turn out. Shaadi ho gayi, ladki bhi khubsoorat hain, badi achchi baatein huyi but once you get married then…
NK: Suhaagraat pe pata chalta hai…(Laughs)
Irrfan: I am not talking about formula films. When you interact with your director, you know there will be some kind of masala in it.
BOI: Nimrat, you did not share a single scene with Irrfan during the shoot. Still, what have you learnt from him?
NK: I have been watching his work very closely for a very long time. He is someone whose work you follow. In Namesake, in that scene where he is behind a beaded curtain… there are moments that grow on you and you want to be better than you are. That is the greatest learning. Once he was coming out of his vanity van and I thought, ‘Ab dekhti hoon, kya karta hain.’ The camera was on and he was still being himself. I was very confused and was thinking, ‘Is he acting or not?’ I thought I would learn something from that but nothing happened!
Irrfan: I hope it becomes a great film. Anyway, whatever it earns will be a profit. We want the audience to like the film; it should lodge in their memory.
NK: It will be my first Friday at the box office. So I won’t even pretend to know what that feels like.
Irrfan: There is some excitement and apprehension in the run-up to a film’s release. Then you just say, ‘Let whatever happens, happen.’
BOI: Even when your Hollywood film released?
Irrfan: Hollywood does humongous business and I don’t have to worry about Rs 7,000 crore or Rs 10,000 crore. Over there, Rs 100 crore is nothing. Overseas, I know the studio will take care of things. They are so specialised in distribution and marketing that they don’t follow the same formula for every film. Slumdog Millionaire released in limited shows as they knew exactly how to market it. Later, they increased the number of shows and they knew exactly where to release the film. Here, if one formula becomes a hit, everyone follows it. And that’s why we are leagues behind them.