The movie has already created waves across the world. But The Lunchbox, which is competing at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) for the prestigious Muhr AsiaAfrica Awards in the Feature Film category, has a strong Dubai connection too. Two of the film’s producers - Arun Rangachari, the Chairman and CEO of DAR Capital Group and Sunil John, the CEO of ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller and Partner & Director at DAR Motion Pictures - are Dubai-based professionals. It was their strong belief in the script and a genuine desire to support high-concept films that will take Indian cinema to another level that made Sunil and Arun support The Lunchbox. In an exclusive interview, Sunil John tells us about why The Lunchbox is such a special film for them.
How and when did your association with The Lunchbox begin?
It began when my friend Arun Rangachari, the Chairman and CEO of DAR Capital Group, invited me to be a Partner and Director of his company’s subsidiary, DAR Motion Pictures in early 2012. Ever since, my monthly breaks in Mumbai transformed into a busy period listening to creative pitches of new film projects or reading scripts. It was during one such session that I read the script of The Lunchbox, and it absolutely charmed my heart. I knew we had a winner in our hands. The script by Ritesh Batra, also the film’s director, had won the Honourable Jury Mention at the 2012 Cinemart of Rotterdam International Film Festival, and was part of the Talent Project Market of Berlin International Film Festival in addition to being mentored by the Torino Film Lab. So we had a terrific script, polished to perfection, waiting to be made. We never hesitated and indeed The Lunchbox has created history in Indian cinema.
What was it about the story that made you want to co-produce it?
Ritesh Batra’s story is about the middle-class in India, a part of the society that is seldom portrayed realistically by mainstream Bollywood cinema. The story of Sajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), an about-to-retire, dyed-in-the-wool Mumbaikar, and Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a lonely homemaker living in the suburbs, is heartwarming, sad and yet full of hope. Depicting the middle class way of life, honestly and without exaggeration, finds universal resonance. So when we read the script, we were convinced of its potential to appeal not just to Indian audiences but also to international viewers. I do not think there has been an Indian film such as The Lunchbox, which in recent times connected so brilliantly with audiences globally.
Did you expect that the film would win such acclaim commercially and critically?
The film’s script already had a history of success at international film festivals, so its track-record was set. Yet, The Lunchbox was Ritesh’s first feature, and when you make a film with a debuting director, there is always an element of risk. But everyone at DAR believed in the project. The support of Anurag Kashyap’s Sikhya Entertainment, the National Film Development Corporation, ROH Films from Germany, ASAP Films from France and Cine Mosaic from US further defined the tremendous confidence of Indian and international studios in this movie. The film also had a strong team of international professionals in the crew including music composer Max Richter (Shutter Island and Waltz with Bashir), cinematographer Michael Simmonds (Paranormal Activity 2) and film editing by John F. Lyons (second assistant editor of Gosford Park). We are indeed delighted that The Lunchbox has brought international acclaim to Indian cinema, when it marks its centenary year.
How disappointed were you when the film didn’t make it to the Oscars?
Yes, we were definitely disappointed that the Film Federation of India (FFI) did not nominate The Lunchbox for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. I strongly believe that the film would have been a definite winner at the Oscars. The decision not to nominate is more political. If good wisdom had prevailed, we would have had a sure winner. But then, the film has already gained international recognition, including winning the Critics Week Viewers’ Choice Award at Cannes Film Festival this year. It was also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, and now makes its gala screening at the 10th Dubai International Film Festival in addition to competing for the Muhr AsiaAfrica Awards.
What are the challenges of producing and creating awareness of a high-concept film like The Lunchbox in a star-driven industry?
The success of The Lunchbox at the box-office marks the beginning of a new era for Indian cinema. The challenge is that the dominance of Bollywood overshadows every other perception about Indian cinema, even though of the 1,600-odd films made in 2012 in India only 221 were in Hindi. In fact, the largest producer of films in India is the Tamil industry with 262 films made in 2012, followed by Telugu with 256. Some of India’s most critically acclaimed films come from regional cinema, which go largely unnoticed. Also even when Bollywood cinema talks about going global, you can see that most films only cater to the Indian Diaspora than to global audiences.
The Lunchbox, however, has set a true milestone, releasing in some 600 screens across India (compared to say Ship of Theseus in over 35 cinemas), as well as gaining overwhelming box-office response even in international markets.
The Lunchbox has opened a new door for creative talent to flourish in the mainstream. At DAR Motion Pictures, we are focused on creating such strong platforms for talented Indian filmmakers who can take our cinema to truly international audiences.
Will the film release commercially in Dubai theatres?
Yes, the film will be released across the Middle East, including the UAE, on December 27, 2013. Sony Classic Pictures will release the films in the US in March 2014. The film’s theatrical release in Europe had fetched record box office collections from countries including the UK, Germany, France and Italy.
How, in your opinion, can we ensure films like The Lunchbox do not just get restricted in the festival circuit? The Lunchbox has already broken the film festival circuit, and has achieved strong commercial success. The box-office response is a strong signal to the burgeoning talent in India to make more films that will find acceptance to global audiences. After all, India has a strong history and tradition in storytelling. We have some of the world’s best directors and technicians. The Lunchbox has indeed showed the way forward for Indian talent to shine through internationally.
What are the other projects that you are supporting currently?
We have a current slate of 10 films directed by renowned talents such as Anurag Kashyap, Shimit Amin, Bejoy Nambiar as well as Ritesh Batra’s second feature film, and a co-production with actor John Abraham, among others.