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The more specific you are, the more universal something becomes: Ritesh Batra

  • Ritesh Batra on returning to shoot ‘Photograph’ in Mumbai
  • The film stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra 

Ritesh Batra with Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Ritesh Batra with Nawazuddin Siddiqui

Following the global success of his debut feature, The Lunchbox (2013), film-maker Ritesh Batra worked on two international projects. He directed the screen adaptation of Julian Barnes’ complex novel The Sense Of An Ending, following that up with another adaptation, the romantic drama Our Souls At Night, with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Now based in New York, Batra’s fourth feature, which he’s written and directed, is set in his former hometown of Mumbai. In Photograph, Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Rafi, a street photographer, and Sanya Malhotra plays Miloni, a lonely middle-class Mumbai girl. After taking a picture of her, Rafi convinces Miloni to masquerade as his fiancée in order to appease his ailing grandmother. The film screened at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, and will release in India on 15 March. Excerpts from an interview:

After doing two films in the West, what was it like returning to shoot your own story in Mumbai?

Increasingly, I am interested in only directing things that I write. Photograph was a great opportunity to get back to my own writing and make a film here. It was also exciting to get the same crew back together, including my production designer, costume designer, line producer and lead actor Nawaz.

‘Photograph’ has been with you since 2013, right after ‘The Lunchbox’ began its journey at Cannes. Did you revise the script significantly after that?

I mainly gave it a big rework after Sanya and Nawaz got cast. We did a lot of rehearsals, particularly for specific relationships such as the one between Sanya and Geetanjali Kulkarni, who plays the maid in her house, and between Nawaz and his group of friends from his tenement. I then rewrote some scenes based on those rehearsals. Even on set, we did things many times over till we all felt we had got it. I try to cast people who really fit the parts and then rewrite it for them so I can get the script close to them.

Why is the male protagonist a photographer at the Gateway of India?

The starting point for Photograph was the movies of the 1980 and 1990s, where a rich girl would fall in love with a poor guy, who was always a motor mechanic or something. I thought—what if there was a way to make a movie now about a rich girl and poor guy that actually felt true, lived-in? You believed and were curious about these people who were spending all this time together. That excited me.

I actually wrote the last scene of the movie first. The entire process of writing and making the movie was about earning that last scene. As you start writing and figuring out who these people are, how they would meet, there comes a sense of nostalgia.

It was nice to give him (Siddiqui’s character) something to do which was manual. He’s not walking around with a selfie stick or something. There’s an old-world charm to his profession.

Besides Siddiqui, whom you had in mind from the start, what was the rest of the casting process like?

Much like Nawaz himself, Rafi is from a small town in UP. He has a really nice innocence and goodness about him. He plays that kind of person in The Lunchbox and in this movie. I think he is playing himself, or at least the way I see him.

Sanya’s character, Miloni, is a Gujarati girl. That’s a more internalized character who doesn’t speak a lot. I saw her in Dangal and then she read the script and auditioned. While working with her, I found I could just take away lines and she could do so much with silences. She’s meticulous. I was lucky to find both of them. There are many other parts, including those played by Geetanjali, Vijay Raaz and Jim Sarbh.

Sanya Malhotra in a still from ‘Photograph’
Sanya Malhotra in a still from ‘Photograph’

What was it like being back on set with Siddiqui?

Working with him as actor-director, I didn’t see any change. He has the same enthusiasm to try things over and over. During The Lunchbox, we were getting to know each other, but now we are friends. The more you work with a person, the better you get to know them. While I didn’t see changes in him, I saw changes around him. He has so many fans, is so loved and respected. It’s well-deserved. When making The Lunchbox, we could sit in a café and wade through the script. We couldn’t do that any longer.

Both your Indian movies have had particular Mumbai characters at the centre—’dabbawalas’, a photographer—who are recognizable to locals. But how do you make these stories globally relatable?

One of the things I learnt from the success of The Lunchbox was that the more detailed and specific you are, the more universal something becomes. Mumbai is a difficult city to shoot and we shot Photograph in locations such as the Gateway, Goregaon, Juhu beach and Behrampada.

Even when we built a set, we honoured the dimensions of the real location, so we gave ourselves and the camera limitations. The character is not just a photographer at a busy tourist site, but we know his background, where he lives, which UP village he comes from, etc. Movies travel if they are detailed, specific and super-local. You are shooting the characters and narrating a story and showing the city through them.

A sense of love and longing seems to underline all your work.

A lot of people have been saying that to me, so I believe it. With Photograph, I kept thinking that something like this would not happen in real life—two people like this would never spend this much time with each other. One or two meetings might be possible, but how do you sustain the length of a movie?

The film is just about following the characters and figuring out who they really are. Essentially, two people spend time together, and nothing else really happens in the movie. Caste, class, religion make the film interesting, but it really is about two people, and that’s what interested me. This film is about the corners of these two people’s hearts that they only find after they meet each other.

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