Ritesh Batra returns from Hollywood to his roots in new flick 'Photograph'

Batra has worked with Hollywood’s elite, but the director tells us why he is happy to go back to what he knows best

Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra in Photograph (2019). IMDb

Ritesh Batra has learnt a lot about the type of films he wants to make. It's been six years since he released his award-­winning debut The Lunchbox. In the years since, he has taken the helm of two feature films in the United States and the United Kingdom, directing Hollywood royalty such as Jim Broadbent, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, but it is Batra's latest film, Photograph, which is garnering buzz.

"After Lunchbox I made two movies, The Sense of an Ending and Our Souls at Night, which I did not write," he says. "I enjoyed working on them, but I was keen to go back to my own writing. I thought the best way to do that was to go to Mumbai, where I'm from." 

Working for himself

I meet the softly spoken Batra at the Berlin Film Festival, where Photograph had its European premiere. The ­38-year-old is in a philosophical mood. "Over the past six years, I have really learnt that I want to write my own things, and I have to be steadfast about that," he says. "If I knew that after Lunchbox, I think I would have helped myself a lot more in terms of being happier."

The trouble he had with working on films as a director for hire was that the politics of the producers and executives on big star-led projects, not to mention the rotating cast of writers, inhibited his own process. Batra was in demand because of the phenomenal success of The Lunchbox and he was seen as the guy to call if you needed a director for a challenging love story. 

Indian director, screenwriter and producer Ritesh Batra poses during a photocall for the film "Photograph" presented in the special gala section at the 69th Berlinale film festival on February 13, 2019 in Berlin. - The Berlin film festival will be running from February 7 to 17, 2019. Nearly 400 movies from around the world will be presented, with 17 vying for the prestigious Golden Bear top prize. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

But as he worked on projects he had not written himself, he felt a disconnection from some of the filmmaking components. 

He also admits to being naive and unsure of how to make the most of his new status as a director-in-­demand. "When you make your second movie, you don't realise how much power you have as a director," Batra says. "You realise it only after you have made a couple of movies." Those experiences led to the realisation that he wants to work exclusively on films he writes.

Gaining some inspiration from Bollywood

Batra moved to the US to study when he was 19 and never left, with the filmmaker now living in New York. 

Thus far, the films he has written have all been set in India, but Batra insists that this is only a coincidence. "I've lived half my life in India and half my life in the States – I feel like I belong to both places and I like to go back and forth as much as possible," he says. "So I'm working on something that is set in the US now, but in short order I'll go back to India and do something there." 

<span>I've lived half my life in India</span><span> and half my life in the States</span><span> – I feel like I belong to both places and I like to go back and forth as much as possible.</span>

His writing process reflects the two sides of his life and he used the same approach that worked for him on The Lunchbox to make Photo­graphBatra begins by writing a script in English and then translates it into Hindi, with award-­winning actress Nimrat Kaur helping with the dialogue

When it came to writing Photograph, Batra took inspiration from the cheesy Bollywood movies that he saw growing up, and which he always viewed as riff on William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, with its formula of a poor guy who pretends he's something he's not in an attempt to woo a rich girl. Batra wanted his version of the Shakespearean classic to reflect Mumbai today, with realistic portrayals of characters, told with pathos rather than as a Bollywood musical or the Bard's comedies. As such, it feels like a sister movie to The Lunchbox.

 In a similiar way to the stories in The Lunchbox and Our Souls at Night, which stars Redford and Fonda, the director follows the intersecting paths of two people from different walks of life and social classes, who meet by chance. 

In Photo­graph, Miloni, who is played by Dangal star Sanya Malhotra, is a shy, middle-class Mumbaikar from a traditional family. She is asked to pose for a photograph by Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a Muslim villager living in the city who is trying to get by as a street photographer. Rafi is being pressured into getting married by his grandmother, so he ­chooses to send her the photo of ­Miloni, claiming it's a picture of his ­fiancee. Of course, granny then wants to meet Miloni and an unlikely romance with Rafi ensues. "At the end of the day, it's a story of two people spending time together and finding out about corners of their heart that they didn't know existed before," Batra says.

A different experience

Siddiqui, who is not your average Bollywood man, worked with Batra on The Lunchbox and says that working with the director is a very different experience to Bollywood productions he has been on. "On set, Batra was quite certain that he wanted us to capture the casual moment in the scene," says Siddiqui. "When the director says action in Bollywood, we start acting, and he said, 'Let's stop acting.' So initially, we needed a lot of takes."

It's a lesson about filmmaking that Batra says he picked up from Thelma and Louise star Susan Sarandon. "She says it about acting but it's true about everything, that you should never do too much, because audiences catch on. And even if they don't get exactly what you mean, they get what it means to them," he says. "By doing this, it's about respecting the audience and allowing them to invest in the movie with their intelligence and their own heart."

Siddiqui was attracted to the role because the romance at the heart of the story stirred memories from his youth. "I had a similar experience when I was a struggling actor and used them for my character," he says. When pushed for more details, Siddiqui clams up, as though he is almost afraid of his own thoughts.

That's the beauty of Photo­graph, and of many great romantic dramas, that there is sadness at its core. The love develops and grows despite the perceived obstacles placed in front of them. "For me, this film is about longing, and Lunchbox was also about longing," says Batra. "Both characters are longing for something else and then this relationship gives them a chance to express that to one another."

Through writing his own films, Batra also gives us a glimpse into his own heart. 

Photograph is in cinemas across the UAE from Friday