Ritesh Batra: Photograph is about corners of our hearts only others can find
Rajeev Masand caught up with the globally-feted director of The Lunchbox at the recent Berlinale 2019, where the filmmaker screened his upcoming Hindi film, Photograph
Ritesh Batra’s Photograph is a meditative romance between strangers played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra. The film, his first Hindi feature since 2013’s The Lunchbox, opens in India mid-March after screenings at Berlinale and Sundance. In between, Batra directed Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling in The Sense Of An Ending, and Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in Our Souls At Night.
One spots parallels between Photograph and two of your earlier films, The Lunchbox and Our Souls At Night. All three seem to reveal your interest in themes of loneliness and the connection it forms between strangers.
For me, all three were about longing, but longing can be funny and sad. While discussing Photograph with the actors, we talked about corners of our heart only others can find. In the film, Sanya and Nawaz’s characters don’t know much about themselves. I thought about all the women I’ve met and how they helped me find out who I am. (Laughs) But that’s all I’m telling you about the women I’ve met.
You’ve cast Nawazuddin as a migrant in Mumbai who clicks photos at Gateway of India, and Sanya Malhotra as a Gujarati girl working towards her CA exams. How were the actors the right fit?
Nawaz is a natural fit. He’s an immigrant from UP. We even used the name of a village that’s close to the one he’s actually from. He has an innocence about him. I wouldn’t say he’s playing himself, but pretty close. While on Sanya, when she auditioned for her role, I felt if I worked with her we could make the character what I want it to be. I decided to take away a lot of her dialogues.
That’s interesting — so much of the film is long passages of silence. That’s different from traditional Hindi movies.
I grew up on movies of the ’80s and the ’90s that always had a rich girl and a poor boy, and a taming-of-the-shrew riff. I thought, what if there was a way to turn the idea into something more real and organic? Photograph is inspired by standard Bollywood narrative. Only, it’s more grounded.
This is intrinsically a Mumbai film, with its parks, old cinema halls, old songs, even a Campa Cola reference. Was all of it a part of your growing-up memories?
Yes, it was also a part of these characters. Also, nostalgia plays a part when you live far away and write from there.
In a scene, Sanya’s character says of a photograph Nawaz has taken of her: “The girl in the picture looked happier and prettier than I am.” It says something about how we view ourselves, doesn’t it, and how photographs can hide sadness?
How we see ourselves and how others see us is different. I often feel conscious of myself. It’s when I meet others that I realise how they perceive me.
This film will be your first release in India since The Lunchbox. Do you feel the expectations or pressure?
I just focus on the next thing. It’s not like I’m not worried but I’ll just go and do my part. If I’m proud of every frame of my film, that’s good enough for me.
Living in New York, do you feel you’re an Indian filmmaker in the West, or do ideas appeal to you regardless of where they come from?
I live in New York because I like to being a foreigner everywhere. (Smiles) The one thing I’m steadfast about is directing what I write. But I like being a foreigner in India and a foreigner in New York. Having an outsider’s eye helps.
That’s interesting, because watching The Lunchbox as well as Photograph, one feels you are a person who knows the city intimately.
That’s because I grew up in Bombay. I know the city, or at least how it used to be during the ’90s, when I was growing up. I left in 1998 but I still carry an Indian passport.
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