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Ritesh Batra: Looking for greatness in ordinary lives

Ritesh Batra on 'The Sense Of An Ending', effective adaptations, and directing on three continents

Ritesh Batra in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.
Ritesh Batra in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

Earlier this year, the American film trade journal Variety picked Ritesh Batra, 37, as one of its “10 directors to watch". The inclusion is understandable. After the resounding global success of The Lunchbox (2013), Batra scored two prestigious international projects. With the British production The Sense Of An Ending, an adaptation of the Julian Barnes novel, starring Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling and Emily Mortimer, and the Netflix original Our Souls At Night, with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, Batra has now worked on three continents.

Batra, who is from Mumbai, was on a fleeting visit to the city to promote The Sense Of An Ending (releasing on 7 April) before returning to New York, where he’s completing post-production on Our Souls At Night. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How did you go about adapting a complex book like ‘The Sense Of An Ending’?

I was already familiar with the book. When I read the script, I was impressed with some of the great inventions (screenwriter) Nick (Payne) had already done. Movies have to be told through relationships, and I could see that here was someone who gets that.

The book is told in the first person, with the central character talking to the reader. That’s the device of the book; the reader is in the shoes of the narrator. Julian is such a master of plot and the characters in the book are great. That’s what I loved about the script—the character study.

Movies and books have to be cousins and making embellishments is part of the process of making a true adaptation. It’s a journey of moving away from the book but somehow staying close enough to it.

What attracted you to this project?

I was very struck by the ordinariness of these characters and how extraordinary their lives actually are. They are not even aware of it till a certain point in the story. I loved the book because it was the coming-of-age story of an older person, but its themes of loneliness and regret spoke to me as a younger person. What really attracted me was that within every ordinary life there is the stuff of great literature.

Ritesh Batra on the sets of ‘The Sense Of An Ending’ with Jim Broadbent.

Do you visualize an entire film at the shooting stage or do you leave room to re-imagine it at the editing table?

You make a lot of decisions on set, but you want to leave variance because you make many decisions on the edit. At the end of the day, movies are crafted on the editing table. A large part of The Sense Of An Ending is told in flashback, but you don’t want the present-day scenes to feel like they are just there to launch into the flashback; you want the whole history of their relationship to be in those scenes. An actor always has to make that choice—on how much information to leave in and how much to take out.

Having made films in India, the UK and US, what are some of the differences you’ve noticed in the film-making cultures?

Working on The Lunchbox was not a conventional Indian film experience. We shot in 30 days, mostly on location, and money and services were gathered from all over the world. So I don’t know how a movie is shot in Mumbai. I was very picky with my crew and I would work with each of them again. One thing I was always prepared for was to rewrite a scene if permission fell through. In the UK too, you need to have a good measure of flexibility.

I made The Lunchbox on a budget of $1.5 million (around Rs9.8 crore ). The Sense Of An Ending had a budget of about $5-6 million. In America, we had a crew of 300-400 people on Our Souls At Night. What impressed me most about working in America was the well-oiled machinery. I could focus on the intimate things and work closely with the actors while the production chugged along. In their own way, each of those 300 people is serving the shot, from being a driver or being on the production design team or costumes, hair and make-up. There is a skill set in America where the (production) machinery is managed in a very effective way. The level of technical skill is equal in all three countries, but the level of planning and precision you see on American productions is something else.

International producers seem to be seeking out the next ‘Lunchbox’ since your film released.

I think Irrfan (Khan) said it best: A movie is not a box that travels around the world collecting donations. Movies are personal. The Lunchbox was very personal to me. It’s about the people in my life, or things I have been through. In a way, there is something of me in all those three characters.

I was shooting with Redford and Fonda in a small town in Colorado with a population of about 4,000. People over there had seen The Lunchbox. Movies can really travel these days. It’s been a real gift for me, but for The Lunchbox to be a benchmark for other people is not really right, because it was a very personal film. Other film-makers should make something personal to them, and producers should give them creative help or money.

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