After The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra is back with Photograph, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra. After screenings at Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival, the film is set to release in India on March 15.
In an exclusive interview with indianexpress.com, Ritesh opens up about why he loves making films based on characters living in ‘Bombay’.
You have made a Hindi film after five years. Why?
I always wanted to come back to Bombay and make a movie. Lunchbox was such a nice gift for everyone who worked on it, and I got a great opportunity that I treasure. But I want to make more movies in India, in not just Hindi but also English.
You know how Photograph happened? I had written it many years ago, and then I rewrote it while I was editing Our Souls At Night. I got a chance to make Photograph here and I jumped on it. It took us about a year to put all the financing together. And once that was done, we put the whole crew together. It is the same crew that worked on The Lunchbox. We have the same production designer, costume designer and same line producer. It was like a great reunion. Nawaz is also in it. He was also in Lunchbox. Nimrat (Kaur) came in and helped me with some dialogues. She is really great. We always have great creative collaborations. I wish even Irrfan (Khan) was a part of this. But I need to write a part that deserves Irrfan. But soon I will, and I am excited to work with him again.
Both your Hindi feature films showcase people based in Mumbai. The city seems like a character in your movies.
I always try to tell my stories through the characters, not through the city. However, the city also at times comes up as a character, and that’s always nice.
In this movie, there was a certain way we shot Sanya’s character because her character is very internal. And Nawaz’s world and the people around him are more boisterous. So, we shot his scenes very objectively.
Bombay is so overwhelming with the sounds and sights. So, it all just comes in it. We can’t stop it. Actually, shooting in Colorado was the tough part for me because I was like, ‘What do you shoot here?’. There is not much for these characters there. Bombay is such a gift really. Our decision was to keep it out as much as possible. But it just works out. These characters can also only be from Bombay. The characters in Lunchbox and the characters in Photograph cannot be from anywhere else. The movie is about the people in Bombay. So, the way the city is portrayed in my films ends up like a natural consequence.
When you made Lunchbox, it was specific to Mumbai. However, you managed to get a global audience. And now Photograph also has great international reviews.
I think you can only be universal when you are specific. I was super specific that the story can happen only in Bombay, not in India. The characters can only come from there, and that they can only say things that they say in Bombay. I remember one conversation that we had a lot during Lunchbox, and we had a similar conversation while making Photograph. Irrfan’s character’s voice-over would be in English because I think that character would think in English. Hence his voice-over was in English even when his dialogues were in Hindi. His scenes with Nawaz were in Hindi. I think you have to always go to what language the character would think in. In Photograph, Sanya plays a Gujarati girl. So, a few scenes in the movie are in Gujarati. You can’t compromise on those details. Hence, only when you are specific and local, can you be universal. So that’s what ends up happening a lot, not just to me but maybe with a lot of filmmakers.
Watch Photograph trailer
You opt for international screenings for your films. Even Photograph had a Sundance premiere and was showcased at the Berlin International Film Festival this year.
These festivals, whether it is Cannes, Sundance or Berlin are not just for screening purposes, it is about the market. Photograph premiered at Sundance, and the next day, it was sold. The festivals are the biggest markets where international buyers come and buy movies for their own markets. That’s how movies are sold all over Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and America. Amazon picked it (Photograph) up for the US and India. This is how we know the movie is going to play everywhere in the world. That is important to me. It is important for me to tell Indian stories to the world. There are also great audiences at these festivals because these are ‘Meccas’ of filmmaking. So many people come there to watch and discover new movies. It is a special experience screening films at these festivals.
You are one of the few Indian filmmakers who quietly had a crossover and made Hollywood films. Was that planned?
It happened after The Lunchbox. You can’t plan these things in this business. I have spent most of my twenties trying to get a movie made. With Lunchbox, it was just me and the script for four years before it finally happened. So, you can’t plan these things. But when you do get the opportunity, you have to be thankful and keep working on it.
So, once I got a chance, I just kept on working. That’s how it is. I feel I always need to keep writing or shooting or editing. That is pretty constant in my life. I need to keep doing one of these three things at all times. Sometimes two of these things together.