On the day his first full-length feature film released in 2013, Ritesh Batra had no idea of the avalanche that was about to hit his professional life. “The Lunchbox”, a bittersweet love story between a bored housewife and a crabby accountant, struck a chord with audiences in India and the West. The film won accolades at film festivals, was nominated for a BAFTA award, and opened a lot of doors for Batra.
His next film is a movie adaptation of English author Julian Barnes’ Man Booker-winning novel “The Sense of an Ending”, with Jim Broadbent and Emily Mortimer in lead roles. Batra has also directed an adaptation of Kent Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night” , which is set to release on video streaming service Netflix sometime this year.
Batra spoke to Reuters about his movies, and how things have changed since “The Lunchbox”.
Q: When you read “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, what jumped out at you?
A: I read the book when it came out in 2011, and I was very struck by it. I loved a lot of things about it, but what I loved was that even though I am young, and the book is an older person’s perspective, I could really bring my life to it. Also, I shared a room with my grandfather growing up. So the first 18 years of my life and the last 18 years of his, we shared a room, because that’s what you do in India - you live with your parents and grandparents.
It was like being young and old at the same time. The book was personal to me in many ways. When the offer came to me to direct the movie, I couldn’t say no. I had to figure out how to go about it and what I could bring to it. The original plan was that I would stay in the UK for nine months, but I ended up living there for more than 13 months. It is not an easy book to make into a movie.
Q: What parts did you struggle with?
A: It’s not like you struggle with one part, because a movie is a whole being. Just the writing and the re-writing, because the book toggles between the past and the present. Also, you cannot just focus on making a book into a movie. At some point you have to make a movie, which is its own thing. We took a lot of liberties in terms of plot and story and character. You have to do that. The book is an internal stream of consciousness. The way to be true to the book would be if one person stood and read it beginning to end and we filmed that, but you can’t do that. You have to tell the book through the relationships.
Q: You said you had to figure out what you could bring to this movie. What do you think you brought to it?
A: That is a difficult question to answer. You try to bring your life to it. Julian always told us, “Go ahead, betray me.” Hopefully, we infused it with some youth, and also saying it from the younger Tony’s perspective. But to find out what we brought to it, you’ll have to watch the movie.
Q: What’s different about shooting in the UK and the U.S. compared to shooting in India?
A: I had a great team when I was making “The Lunchbox”. The crew is the same everywhere. In the U.S., it is more of an organised machine. I find working in the UK and in India to be similar. But in the U.S., when I was shooting “Our Souls at Night”, I found that I had a big crew and it’s very efficient and everyone’s roles are defined. If you want to do something free-form, it is a bit harder.
London is a very difficult city to shoot in, as is Mumbai. The U.S. was much easier. The crew is so organised and shooting is so much easier - like light studies have been done for the next day, and so on. It was a level of preparation even I was not prepared for.
Q: On the day that “The Lunchbox” released, what did you think your career path would be? At that point, what was the plan?
A: I wasn’t really thinking about the path at all. I was just happy that my film got a good release. But it was received so warmly all around the country. I would meet people on flights from all over India who would tell me they loved the movie. I got invited to speak at places, I got emails from people about my movie, and it went to (being screened at) 600 screens, which I never expected. But I didn’t know where it was going at that point, so I took to writing some stuff, and I took some time off. Then I started getting offers to direct stuff in the West.
Q: What was your thought process when you got these offers?
A: After “The Lunchbox”, I was looking for the right thing to do and “The Sense of an Ending” seemed like the right thing to do. It was something I had never done before – adapted a novel. Two, it was a novel that I loved and working with actors that I loved, like Charlotte Rampling. But it was just one thing leading to another. When I was finishing “The Sense of an Ending”, I got a call saying Robert Redford would like to talk to you. You can’t plan that. It may well have not worked and I would still be here. I would still be making movies though.
Q: What do you think it is about your film-making sensibilities that endears you to both the West and India?
A: I don’t know! I’ve just made three films and two of them aren’t even out yet. I don’t think about it too much. You just hope that you keep getting to do this. You can’t keep thinking, “What’s so special about me?” My dad’s in the merchant navy and my mum’s a yoga teacher. I am not even supposed to be making movies (Laughs).
Q: Did the Oscar snub hurt?
A: Does it hurt all of us? I don’t know. I don’t have the time to think about it. One day, when an Indian film wins an Oscar, it will be of great benefit to everyone. Unfortunately, we haven’t reached that. It has to be a great movie, and one that breaks out to the West. And we need great institutions in our country. I used to talk to Robert (Redford) all the time about what he’s done with Sundance. We need those kinds of institutions to support film-makers and promote movies. Until we build those institutions… and it our responsibility to create them. I cannot complain about the FFI (Film Federation of India) and NFDC (National Film Development Corporation of India) not supporting the movie, as they should have. It is my responsibility to create those institutions.
Editing by David Lalmalsawma