Ritesh Batra is best known for his debut feature film The Lunchbox, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2013 and won the Rail d’Or (Grand Golden Rail). The film starring Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Nimrat Kaur also went on to become the highest grossing foreign film for the year 2014 in North America, Europe and Australia, and was nominated for a BAFTA award in the category of Best Film not in English Language. Ritesh Batra has now come up with Photograph, which released on Friday and opened to good reviews.
Before Photograph, Batra directed The Sense of an Ending, an adaptation of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novel by the same name. In 2017, he also directed Academy Award winning actors Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in an American romantic-drama Our Souls at Night.
Batra’s Photograph starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra in lead roles is about the relationship between a street photographer, Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and a young CA student, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), who the former convinces to pose as his fiancée so that his grandmother stops pressurising him to get married.
Thestatesman.com met up with the director who spoke about art-house cinema, why he quit film school, how being a writer-director helps, working with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, his next project and much more.
In an interview, you said you build an entire film around a scene. That scene is what comes first in your head, and then the film follows. Is it as easy as it sounds?
It’s different with every film. But, what generally always happens to me, that one scene… I think it happens to a lot of writers that the scene that the movie is really about, that’s the scene you write first. And, most often for me, that scene ends up being the last scene in the movie.
The whole process of writing is a process of getting to know your characters. And, I really enjoy that. You know… everybody works differently. For some people, a visual comes first and but for me really, movies are about relationships and characters. And, who are these two people that are doing these things or that these things are happening to them.
But, for this movie, I actually wrote the last scene of the movie first and that what, you know in many ways, the movie is about.
There is a general idea, that the simplest way to discern between an art film and a commercial film, apart from the content, is the pace. Do you think that sometimes new directors who are making features or the Indie film school of directors deliberately slow down the pace of the film to make it fit into that category?
Yeah, maybe that happens, and that happens all over the world, you know. I think the pace of the film is determined by its characters. How expressive, how reticent, what makes these people tick. What is the inner mechanics or inner being of these people? And, how long they would believably take to do something or what they would do; to what extent they would go to get what they want. Do they know what they want?
But, the pace of the film is determined by, I feel, it is really determined by the actors and the characters, by the performances and the band of the performances. So, I really always try to honour that.
So there really is no difference in art and commercial films in that sense?
I don’t think so. I think the difference between art and commercial is just a made up difference in many ways because you know, in other countries there is an art-house circuit. Like there are cinemas that play only art-house films and then they anchor those films. From there, those films expand to mainstream films; that’s what happened to The Lunchbox, for instance in the US and in other countries.
Because, The Lunchbox played everywhere and it stayed for months in the theatres and I saw that happening. But, in our country there are very few or no art-house cinemas. So, I feel, like a film is a film. In our country, especially, I don’t think you can have a distinction. If you don’t have venues that are specifically playing art house films then how can you say something is art-house and something isn’t? That is all just a construction.
A movie is a movie and I think, film is an art, you know. I hope every film is an art-house film.
How did you get the idea for the film Photograph and why Bombay again?
Well, it’s what I know best. I grew up there, I was born there. I have a deep love for the city. I feel like I know how it used to be. Of course, I don’t know how it is now exactly because I have left and I come back to work. I came back to make The Lunchbox. I came back to make Photograph. I come back to visit my family-my parents, and my sister and everybody who still lives there. I absolutely love the city and I feel like I know these characters, these quintessential Bombay characters that could only come from that city.
I look at it from a real place of nostalgia because for me, it’s stuck when I left. So I really miss that time and those things about this city. You know, I think invariably the characters also end up doing the same thing.
We used to have; I remember when we were growing up, if you would remember these films in the 80’s and 90’s that were lot of rich-girl-boy-guy-romances. The guy is a motor mechanic and then you know, it’s like a potboiler movie where a lot of unbelievable things happen. So I thought what if there was a way to make a movie like that. What about two people who come from different classes and their lives go along together for some time, and I also thought that this kind of a relationship would be an “undefined one”. So, I was interested in defining that.
Did you make it more real then?
No, no, I think it is very real. You can believe the things that are happening on screen. Vijay Raaz plays a really interesting character in the movie that shows up for one scene and you know it’s completely…. You know I don’t want to give away the movie. You should watch it
I feel it’s a very realistic movie but at the same time there’s a ghost in the movie and these two people living in a very undefined relationship. You can’t define this relationship; that was really interesting for me. How do you make a movie about a relationship that cannot be defined, you know? It cannot be defined as “a love”; it cannot be defined as “a like”. It cannot be defined as a “boyfriend and girlfriend”. At some point, her character even says- Voh Mera Boyfriend Nahi Hai and she means it.
I feel like there are so many relationships in our lives that we cannot really define exactly. And, sometimes you get an opportunity to be in a relationship like that and you obviously think about it years later; what was that exactly, you don’t know.
In an earlier interview of yours, you said it was hard to be a writer-director simultaneously. Like, during The Lunchbox, you were trying to tell yourself not to re-write the film while directing it. A lot of people also say that is the problem in Hindi film industry, that most directors are writers here and their attachment to their material makes them lose that sense of objectivity while directing a film.
You know, I think experience also teaches you a lot of things. This is my fourth film… and have been fully responsible because it’s a director’s medium. I know for myself, that I got better with every movie. And, I enjoyed immensely coming back to my own writing. Because the last two movies I made, Our Souls at Night and The Sense of an Ending, I didn’t write.
I directed them and I worked closely with the writers, especially in Our Souls at Night. But, I loved directing my own writing. That’s what I am going to do for the foreseeable future.
I am gonna stick to… I would love to adapt, but if I am adapting it myself. In fact, I am working on an adaptation, but I am doing it myself.
It only helps when you are the writer-director. It helps a lot.
You had also said Nawazuddin Siqqiqui was playing himself in the film and that was not easy…
Yeah, you know, it’s not how I see him. Even in The Lunchbox he was playing an innately nice guy. Of course, nobody is like that, nobody is just nice. Everybody has their faults. What we see the aspect of a human being is just… we learn so much about Irrfan’s character through him (in The Lunchbox). Even in this movie, he is playing someone innately nice, someone who is trying to do the right thing for his family, even for this girl.
It’s very difficult to play yourself. I feel like in many ways Nawaz is like that. He is a very transparent person. There is an innate niceness about him. So, in movies I often see him abusing and fighting- gali galoch and all that stuff. In this movie, he does none of that.
It was really special to work with Nawaz and Sanya on this one. You really believe that these people are actually spending time together, because in real life this wouldn’t happen. It would just be a small transaction, Bhaiya kitna hua- ye lo chutta, done. It would be a 7 minute movie, but to sustain a length of a movie with an undefined relationship at its centre, that is really something, and it is much credit to the actors. And, I think we did some wonderful work together. So, I feel really proud of it, it’s a very special piece of my heart.
Why did you quit film school?
Well, at that point in my life, I thought it was the best thing for me to do. But I wouldn’t advise anyone, it worked out for me. Having said that I have many friends and colleagues who went on to finish film school and have successful careers now.