Ritesh Batra's holly highs
The Lunchbox man Ritesh Batra returns to his roots with Photograph
Mumbai boy Ritesh Batra has had a dream run so far. His directorial debut The Lunchbox — an unlikely love story between an ageing widower (Irrfan Khan) and a neglected homemaker (Nimrat Kaur) — not only won big at Cannes but also got him a Bafta nomination. He followed it up with two biggies: The Sense of an Ending, adapted from the Man Booker winner, and Our Souls at Night, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. Batra now returns to his roots to direct Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Dangal girl Sanya Malhotra in Photograph. A t2 chat.
The last time we had spoken, you had expressed an interest in making a film about Mumbai. Is Photograph a homage to the city you grew up in?
It’s set in Bombay and has a lot of local actors in it, but I never try and pay homage to anything… my intention is always to tell a good story. Paying homage is a very big responsibility and not something that I really want to take on right now (smiles), but I feel the film is a good story well told.
Apart from the fact that Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays a street photographer, you’ve managed to keep Photograph under wraps. What can you tell us about the film at this point?
Apart from Nawaz, there’s Sanya Malhotra from Dangal (Sanya played Babita Phogat). Then I have Geetanjali Kulkarni, Jim Sarbh, Vijay Raaz, Sachin Khedekar…. It’s about a street photographer, played by Nawaz, and his muse of sorts, that’s played by Sanya. It’s a film that talks about interpersonal relationships, set against the backdrop of a city that hardly ever sleeps. That’s all I can tell you at the moment!
You have directed Nawaz before in The Lunchbox…
Nawaz is always a pleasure to work with and even this time, he brought something special to his role. Even Sanya is wonderful. I think she fit the part really well.
Is it different directing a Nawaz or an Irrfan from a Jim Broadbent or a Robert Redford? Or, are all actors the same at the end of the day?
I think they are all different. If people are different, then actors are also different. Some actors are, of course, similar in how they work. Funnily, I found the process of working with Charlotte Rampling (who played Veronica Ford in The Sense of an Ending) very similar to Irrfan’s working style. As a director, you have to adjust to how every actor works and learn more about them during rehearsals and prep. Our Souls at Night also had a child actor, Iain Armitage, and it was fascinating to see him at work on set. I allowed him to be himself and still have him be part of the movie. Directing, at the end of the day, is taking diverse people together and making them part of what you want to create. As a director, I stay as close as possible to my actors. Even on set, you will find me somewhere close to the lens than in front of the monitor. To see such fine actors work in front of you is a real privilege.
You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the acting business over the course of just four films. Has it got intimidating at any point of time?
Actually never, and that’s why they are who they are. They know that, at the end of the day, it’s the director’s vision and they are there to help him bring it to life. Everyone on set has ideas, but as a director, your job is to take those that work for your film and politely reject those that don’t suit the tone of the story you are trying to tell. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a tough time with an actor or two, but just like in life, in films you meet all kinds of people, and you just have to deal with it.
You are now off to New York for a couple of months. What’s on the anvil for your production banner PoeticLicense Motion Pictures?
Photograph is our first production and it’s going to be out next year. I am producing a Hindi film that’s going to be directed by Raj (Rishi) More. He assisted me on The Lunchbox and some other films and it’s a beautiful script. I’m happy to bring it to life. And then I am working on a five-part miniseries that’s going to be set in Bombay. So, it’s one step at a time.
Our Souls at Night premiered on Netflix. Does a digital release take away the euphoria of seeing your film play out on the big screen?
Not really. I had a great time working with Netflix. All these streaming platforms are making such great content available and are also posing a lot of competition to local content. So, we have to really up our game in the sense that our content should be able to compete internationally. I hope I can contribute, in whatever small way, to generating Indian content that will not only be viewed locally but also travel.
Do you ever see yourself working in Bollywood?
I may not have stepped into Bollywood per se, but I am working with many Bollywood faces. Nawaz is a big star… it was hard to shoot on the streets of Bombay because he’s so loved (smiles). I see myself writing scripts and casting people who fit those parts, whether they are stars or not. I am a big fan of Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan and if I wrote something that made sense to them to do, I would approach them for sure.