Ritesh Batra, who broke on the scene with the universally loved TheLunchbox, is currently rendering the final touches to Our Souls at Night, a Netflix production that stars Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. In between all this, he has taken time to fly down to Mumbai for a few meetings and to oversee the India release of his British film, The Sense of an Ending. On a sunny afternoon in suburban Mumbai, Batra sat down with this writer for a chat on the response to The Sense of an Ending, his future projects, and why he's longing to return to the city he loves the most.
The comparisons between the movie and the book, The Sense of an Ending, have already started coming out. What do you make of them?
Movies and books have to be like cousins and not siblings. The movie has to stand out on its own. Movies have to be told through relationships while a book is largely written in a 'first person account' manner.
What was Julian Barnes' (the writer of the novel) response to the movie?
He sent me a very generous letter about how much he loved the movie. This movie has been really interesting. We got a very nice review from Variety and Deadline and some other reviewers.
Some of the reviewers say that the build up is quite good but the payback isn't as satisfying. Was this something you were grappling with while directing?
Not really. I did not perceive it as a psychological thriller. I always thought of it as a character study. It's a study of Jim's, Charlotte's, Harriet's, Emily's and Michelle's character. The story, according to me, is about how ordinary lives are actually extraordinary. That's what the book is about too.
Julian told both of us to go ahead and 'betray me'. It's a great licence to have from the novelist. Books that are translated on the screen don't always work. It has to be a true adaptation. Cinema is something that you just consume on a flat screen but literature is multi-dimensional. It's different in the way that it engages you. I wasn't as much interested in the contrivances of the plot as much as I was in exploring the characters' psyche.
How do you think Indian audiences will respond to it it considering it's a relatively dark subject than they are used to consuming?
I don't think the movie is that dark. I'm quite hopeful about it. We'll have to find out and wait and see how it ages.
From The Lunchbox to The Sense of an Ending to Our Souls at Night -- you've made an Indian, British and an American film. That's quite a unique trajectory for an Indian filmmaker.
Honestly, I don't think about it. I just think about the work that interests me. I did The Sense of an Ending for the love of the book and for the way Nick has adapted it. I did Our Souls at Night for the love of the source material and the opportunity to work with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.
Was there any anxiety when you were on the sets directing foreign actors and dealing with a crew with different cultural sensibilities?
I'd be lying if I say that the thought didn't come to my mind. But, (I was like) why not. Why can't an Indian director do that?
Yes, of course. Collaborating with a wide variety of people and working at different places, it takes a while to get used to the rhythm of the place.
While shooting in Colorado, we didn't hire actors for that scene, but worked with the locals. So what was interesting was conducting a workshop with them and rehearsing with them.
I personally was hard pressed to come up with a movie like The Sense of an Ending. I've not seen a movie like it, which is not to say it is good or bad.
Even at the time of making The Lunchbox, it took some time to get used to the setting. We were shooting in Dongri once. We had to get a lot done in a short period of time. There were a lot of people watching us, so that wasn't easy.
Filmmaking is always challenging. You just have to get used to it.
You've directed 3 films now. Where do you see yourself going?
Nowhere in particular. I would like to come back to Bombay and make a movie and then go somewhere else to do the same thing.
Do you find your sensibilities at odds with conventional Bollywood standards?
No, not really. Are there a lot of movies made in India? Yes. Are their few screens to show them? Yes. And do people want to watch different things? Absolutely. Therefore some things (the sensibilities) have to change. It's interesting to see how Netflix and Amazon are coming with interesting ways to talk about local content. At the end of the day, there is a platter of choice and people are going to choose what they like. So that's why I don't think I am particularly at odds with the sensibilities.
In your opinion, can cinema change lives?
It's easy to understate or overstate the value of anything. But I don't think cinema is going to change anyone's life. All they can do is offer people questions and make people see themselves in it.
But who knows, sometimes some people are connected to a movie and it does change their lives. Some people are maybe inspired to take some actions in their lives. Also, some people watch it and they don't really care.
I was watching a movie once, Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition. I came out of the movie and felt the urge to call my dad. That's what movies make you do.
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