Ritesh Batra Talks About Working With Nawazuddin Siddiqui, The Lunchbox And More
Ritesh Batra’s debut film, The Lunchbox (2013) was set in Mumbai, and the success of that film turned him into an overnight star, with him winning multiple awards and recognition across the globe. He followed that up with two international projects, Sense of An Ending (2017) for the BBC and Our Souls at Night (2018) for Netflix. He is now back in India with his latest Hindi film, Photograph, which is again set in Mumbai. It’s a story of two individuals, whose lives intersect in the city. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays a struggling street photographer, Rafi, who is pressurized by his grandmother to get married, and he convinces a shy and naive stranger, Miloni – played by Sanya Malhotra – to pose as his love interest.
When I interviewed you during the release of Sense of An Ending, you had denied that you were making a film with Nawazuddin in the lead.
I might have. I wouldn’t have been ready. It takes time to put financing together for movies, especially if you want freedom and independence to do things your way. I wouldn’t deny that since The Lunchbox things have become much easier in the sense of working on things I like. But with The Lunchbox also, it was only me and the script for four years, and that was tough. It is never easy: one, to write your own thing, and two, to direct your own writing, but it takes time to write something, you also want flexibility and freedom to change, and it’s because business works in a very specific way. Different people will read the same script and imagine a different movie, but you want to work with people who want to make the same movie.
I love these characters – it took me time to find these characters. The film is about a struggling photographer from a small town in Uttar Pradesh and a Gujarati girl from Mumbai studying for her CA. These two people would never spend time together in reality, and I want to make a movie where it is believable. You believe that these two people are voluntarily spending time together, there has to be something inside them which makes them do that. The movie is just two people spending their time together. To make that kind of movie, you really need people who believe in it. You can go here and there to get money, but everything comes at a price.
In the last five years, many accolades have come your way. You were named amongst the biggest exports from India as a director after Shekhar Kapur, and Variety magazine, back in 2017, named you as one of the top 10 directors to look forward to. When you look back at all of this, do you ever think about how you got here?
You have to be very thankful for it, because when you are trying to make your first film and you are not from the business, you don’t know how things work. It takes a lot of years to figure out how it works, not just to figure out what you are doing like how to write, how to direct or how to work with actors, you keep on learning that. But you also need to learn how to survive in the business, how to get your movies made. Working with names like Robert Redford or Charlotte Rampling was a gift, coming back to India to make a film was a gift. I learn from every film. I’ve learnt a lot about myself too, like how much I love writing my own stuff, that is something that you can learn only from your experiences.
What I do think is that I got an opportunity to make things that only I can make, and I would like to utilize that by making films that only I can make, otherwise what is the point? I’ve come to realize something more and more which I didn’t know after I finished The Lunchbox, which is that I should be making only my stuff, the stuff that I write, stuff that I generate. From then to now, my appreciation for my writing has increased. I really missed directing the stuff I had written. I’d only like to direct things that I write for most of the time henceforth. So that has been my learning, but I have never sat down and wondered how it happened, because I know how it happened (laughs).
What is it about loneliness that attracts you? It is a running theme in most of your films, and you can also sense a bit of it in the trailer of Photograph
I don’t think it is loneliness, but if you want to call it that, so be it. Loneliness on its own is not interesting. I wouldn’t call it loneliness because loneliness is just somebody sitting around alone in a room. All the characters have a longing, they are longing for something they don’t have, so films like The Lunchbox or Photograph or Our Souls are about longing – these people have a longing for something different, something better. At times in reality there are people who don’t know what they are missing, but they know something is missing and that is usually how most people spend their entire lives. And then something happens that makes them understand, and sometimes someone just tells them what they are missing – but usually you have to go through some struggle to realize the missing aspect.
So film-making was the missing aspect in your life, given that you began your career as a consultant?
I always wanted a career in films and film making. It is only when you grow older that you realise everything has a deeper meaning. Why I wanted to be a part of films and why do I continue to be a part of it is still an ongoing search. I’ve been going to therapy for five or six years now to seek it. I find it very helpful. You can never get to know yourself completely, the better you know yourself, life will become easier in some way and bring in clarity and understanding. This is also one of the gifts of The Lunchbox, as going to therapy is expensive (laughs). I recommend it to everyone, it is money well spent.
After working with actors like Robert Redford, Jane Fonda and Charlotte Rampling, do you find any differences between actors from the West and from here?
There are certain actors, either through experience or training, they know their craft and have their own tools. I think both Irrfan and Nawaz are amongst the best that we have, and also the best amongst the actor that I’ve worked with. It has been a very special experience working with actors like Irrfan Khan and Charlotte Rampling, they have very similar souls. I’m in a position to work with actors like Irrfan and Charlotte Rampling – I don’t think anyone else had this opportunity like this, so that is what I really treasure. Seeing these two people, with two different kinds of experience, from two different countries, both are at the top of their game, their profession, both are super accomplished, and they are such innately similar people.
You are teaming up with Nawaz after a gap of five years. What was the collaboration like this time around?
Working with Nawaz in Photograph, he character is pretty much how I see him. There is innate goodness in him, that is how I see him. Even in The Lunchbox, he is a really nice guy. So when I finished writing the film, I felt it should be him playing this role, so for me he is just playing himself in the film. And I don’t think anyone has seen him like this on screen.
What you’ve always liked to do as a film-maker is to find a sort of co-existence and centering of opposite emotions in the same piece or movie, scenes that can be both sad and funny
Yes, I do that. I take care of that in my writing and most of the time it is only me who finds it funny, which I think is OK (laughs). During The Lunchbox, we were specifically trying to make it funny and sad, or else the film would’ve become drab. Also it is not that when people are going through sad times, they don’t laugh or they don’t joke, or they just keep on crying. Even at a funeral, funny things can happen.