The Hyatt Regency lobby, just under the press centre, is usually so crowded that you can barely find standing room. But we manage to grab place at an overflowing table for this quick chat with Ritesh Batra. The filmmaker has just flown in, and is gearing up for the screening of Photograph, his newest film which stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra. Siddiqui plays a photographer who hangs about the Gateway of India, trying to rustle up customers from amongst the tourists; she is a young student from a well-to-do family: both are looking for direction. The film premiered at the Sundance festival a fortnight ago.
It’s been six years since his Lunchbox swept audiences in India, and outside. A bitter-sweet tale of loneliness and connection, and a loving ode to the city of Mumbai, it should have been the Indian entry to the Oscars in 2013. Batra is still clearly bitter about having lost the coveted spot. In a way, though, finding box office success around the world, may have worked better for him in terms of recognition, and finding work away from home.
In these years, with The Sense Of An Ending (Charlotte Rampling, Jim Broadbent) and Our Souls At Night (Robert Redford, Jane Fonda), Batra has achieved what no other working Indian filmmaker has: he has successfully crossed over.
What brings him back to Mumbai? “I started writing Photograph right after Lunchbox, but it took time to put it together,” says Batra. “It is the kind of film that needed a fair bit of independence to make, and we raised the money entirely on pre-sales (the film has been sold in all major territories ) after finding the right people to help produce it”.
This is what filmmakers all over the world dream about, because it’s all about the money, honey. Batra is in the enviable position of having reached it remarkably quickly. How did he become this go-to cross-over artist? “To be honest, I was never strategic about it,” he says. “The Sense Of An Ending was a Julian Barnes novel I loved, and when I looked into it, BBC was already adapting it, and then it came to me as an offer to direct. And then I got a call from Robert ( Redford, who began as mentor and can now be counted as a friend) that he wanted to make a movie on this Kent Haruf novel. I read Our Souls, and I was on,” says Batra.
Given that he now lives in the West, and is potentially going to be there for a long time, does he see Mumbai with new eyes? “I will at some level always be a Bombay boy,” he says. “But the city I grew up in has changed so much. Today I want to be able to come and go, back and forth, make movies in Mumbai and outside. I want that freedom,” he adds.
To be free to make the film you want is really where it’s at. With Photograph, he’s moving away from adaptations, back to his own writing, and this time his own company has made it, which is as close to freedom as you can get. Will it woo audiences the same way as did Lunchbox? “We had a good screening at Sundance, but I’m curious to see how it is received here in Berlin,” said Batra. Photograph releases in India in March.
Another Indian filmmaker who has been receiving a lot of warm attention on the film festival circuit is Rima Das. Her film, the lovely coming-of-age Village Rockstars, was the official Indian entry to the Oscars in 2018. Das is here with her third feature Bulbul Can Sing, which can be read as a companion piece to Village Rockstars, and she’s spending time in between catching movies like the rest of us.
There’s a tinge of sadness in Das’s voice as she recounts her Oscar experience, which consisted of a whirlwind month of screenings and meetings in LA. She’s in a woollen jumpsuit, and can pass off for a little girl. The filmmaker is usually and proudly dressed in a Mekhela chador, the gorgeous Assamese traditional drape which Das has sported on red carpets around the world. And now here she is in Berlin, winning hearts.
It’s been high Indian season at the Berlinale 2019, with 10 Indian films programmed across different sections. ‘I’m so thrilled that we are so visible this year,” says Meenakshi Shedde, South Asian consultant to the Berlinale.