The Lunchbox is a Mumbai Story: Michael Simmonds
“Ritesh and I had the visuals of the film blocked out on paper before we started filming,” tells cinematographer Michael Simmonds while talking about the making of critically acclaimed and Cannes award winning film, The Lunchbox (Dabba). In an exclusive interview with Pandolin, this talented cinematographer from the US demystifies what went into the shooting of this deliciously served film, his working collaboration with director Ritesh Batra, his respect for Irrfan and the challenges he faced while filming on the streets of Mumbai.
How and when did you come aboard on this project? What exactly prompted you to take on an Indian film like The Lunchbox?
I received an email from Ritesh on June 17th 2012, asking me to read his script. He got my contact info through a mutual acquaintance from the Sundance lab. He was aware of my work from the films of Ramin Bahrani. Though I didn’t know Ritesh but I saw that Lydia Pilcher i.e. Mira Nair‘s producer was producing the film and I have always wanted to work with her. Later I discovered that Irrfan was also casted in the project, which definitely made me much more interested in it. In the US, we don’t know many Indian actors but Irrfan is extremely respected here. However, I must add that the script was fantastic as well. It moved really fast and the use of the Dabbas was really original. It was a story that had to take place in Mumbai and not just using Mumbai as an exotic backdrop. The project was starting right away and I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. I believe, I signed the project on June 26th and was on a plane to Mumbai, a few days later.
How was your collaboration with the director Ritesh Batra and what was his creative vision for this film?
While I was still in New York, Ritesh and I would Skype and stayed in contact everyday. Initially, we used to discuss films; we were inspired by and then soon went to breaking down the script. Ritesh wanted to visually separate Ila’s (played by Nimrat Kaur) world from Saajan’s (played by Irrfan Khan). In the film, Saajan’s life seems well captured with a static camera while Ila’s story has been told through movements. We allowed the movement of the actors to dictate how the film would be shot. Ritesh and the production designer found most of the locations and would send me photos as I was still in NYC.
My biggest concern was how small Ila’s apartment was and how big Saajan’s house felt. This became an on going challenge to remain true to the reality while making things work for a film production. Ila’s apartment would have to be taken apart for every shot, making it very time consuming, while Saajan’s house was filmed in a way to make it look a bit more modest than it was. I was told that the Christians in Bandra would often live in the larger houses while a working class Hindu would live in a modest apartment. I wanted to be true to this but at the same time tried, not to make it distracting for a non-Indian audience. When I arrived in Mumbai, we got to work right away. Everyday we would go over the pages in the script word by word and then go to the locations and work on the blocking of the scenes.
What was your own initial approach and understanding towards the look and the feel of The Lunchbox? How much artistic liberty did you get while shooting this film?
Ritesh and I really had the visuals of the film blocked out on paper before we started filming. For Ila’s place, we had many days of rehearsing on-location with Nimrat, so we always knew where the camera would be. Saajan’s story was a little more complicated because some of the locations were harder to secure or find. We didn’t get much time in his office because it was an active railway office. Also, filming in and around an oval field turned out to be a disaster. At the last minute we were refused permission and we had to improvise all the scenes around the field, rather than in it. Ultimately, it worked out but required lots of last minute decisions.
I didn’t have much to do with the scouting, aside from seeing photos and commenting on them while I was in NYC. The film happened at the last minute and went into production right away. I did scout a few locations like in Dongri and some other for walking shots but as a cinematographer, my concerns were very technical, like, how would we get all the equipment through this maze of stairs and where would all the lights go. Mumbai is an extremely photogenic and equally difficult city to film in. The Lunchbox is a Mumbai story and we never really filmed outside the city. In my three to four months stay in India, all I ever saw was between Colaba and Andheri. I hope one day to see more of the city.
So far, Mumbai has been the most challenging place for me to film. Between the traffic, city sprawl and large population, it’s not very conducive to the logistic of film production. Here, a crowd of few thousands can appear in the matter of minutes. The exterior of the Dongri wedding, which I shot for this film, was a particular challenge for me. Literally, there were people everywhere, all looking into the camera and shouting. Fortunately, the security team was very good but still it was a bit frustrating filming on the streets. In NYC, people are used to filmmaking and won’t look in the camera, but in Mumbai it was impossible to have a star like Irrfan walk down the street and film him without stopping the pedestrian traffic.
Which camera format did you work with and what was your choice of lenses for this film?
We shot the film on an Arri Alexa and a set of Zeiss super speed primes. The Alexa is my digital camera of choice due to its ergonomics. It’s much better balanced on the shoulder than the RED epic and I knew there would be lots of handheld in Ila’s story. I find that older super speeds take the edge off the digital image. They are also small and good for handheld. Zeiss lenses seem to have a blue tint while Cooke lenses lean on orange. The blue tones of the Zeiss’ seemed to match the melancholy feel of the story. Also, I felt that they matched Mumbai in the monsoon season better. India, which I was filming, was not a bright, happy go lucky place with people dancing and wearing bright clothes. It was a tragic and sad place where people struggle with modern life.
What kind of camera movements and framing did you practice for The Lunchbox?
Framing is a decision that is made with the instinct on the set. During prep, I make sure that all the departments have rough idea about what I plan on doing so that they could park their trucks or stage the equipment accordingly. But I never know exactly, what I will do until I see the actors block the scene. Moving the camera was a bit tricky on this shoot. In the US, you always have a dolly on the truck whereas in India you have to special order it for that particular day. This meant that all dolly moves had to be pre-planned, which I am not used to.
Also, as an American, I know very little about India, its culture and lifestyle. Though, I discovered a bit while being in Mumbai. In the US, India is synonymous with yoga and spiritual teachings, but when I was living a Mumbai life, I experienced none of that. I think there are many different “Mumbais” and it’s changing rapidly and that’s what the film is about. I just tried to be true to what I saw and what Ritesh was showing me.
I begin lighting and film with the same simple logic, i.e. keeping the lights out of the frame. I tried to keep the lighting simple and true to the spaces. For Ila’s interior I had to make it a bit more flattering than the reality. That type of house would have one overhead florescent, which would not look nice at all.
What was the most interesting sequence for you to shoot in this film?
I don’t have any favorite sequence since I haven’t seen the final cut of the movie with sound. I saw a very near finished cut to give notes for the color timing but then Ritesh was still working on the edit. Believe it or not, once the shooting is over, my job is done and then I briefly see a cut during color correction. The only time I see the film is in a movie theater.
How would you define your overall experience working with an Indian cast and crew?
I enjoyed filming this movie but Mumbai is one never-ending challenge for the filmmakers. The crew was wonderful and the production was very professional but the city was relentless. Shooting days are normally based on the concept of “ETA” or “estimated time of arrival” or simply “how long do you need to complete a certain task”. And Mumbai is a difficult city to give someone an accurate “ETA” due to the traffic, noise, sprawl, population and the general misunderstandings. How long will it take to get over the Bandra-Worli sea link today? Who knows? It could take 10 minutes or may be 2 hours.
Filmmaking is a very standardized industry. We use the same gear world wide to make our movies. Hence in that sense, the actual making of The Lunchbox was not much different from anywhere else in the world where I have filmed. However, one thing that I found very unique was filming Ganesha at the beginning of every shoot. Also, it seemed like someone was constantly offering me chai all day. The structure of the crew is different for the grips and the electrics. I never got used to that.
Where did the DI of the film happen and who was your colorist?
I believe, the DI happened in France but I was not a part of it. I was in the US shooting another film. Later, Ritesh sent me a link to the film and I just shared my notes.