True to the Letterhttps://indianexpress.com/article/entertainment/ritesh-batra-true-to-the-letter-4912799/

True to the Letter

Director Ritesh Batra on his latest Hollywood film, Our Souls At Night, mature romances and adapting books to screen

ritesh batra, Our Souls At Night, lunchbox, lunchbox director, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, netflix, Nawazuddin Siddique
Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in a still from Our Souls At Night

The camera closes up on an old and wrinkled Robert Redford, wearing a plaid shirt, and eating a meal-for-one all by himself in his house. The loneliness of his character is manifested in the single fork and plate he rinses in the sink after having dined alone at a table meant for six. This is the introductory scene of Louis Waters, the character essayed by Redford in the film Our Souls At Night, directed by Ritesh Batra, which was released on Netflix recently. After The Sense of An Ending earlier this year, this is Batra’s second foreign outing.

Batra had won accolades and acclaim with his debut film, The Lunchbox, in 2013. After spending the better part of the year abroad, the filmmaker is back in Mumbai and is working on his next venture. Has he moved overseas for good? He laughs and answers, “Someone had asked me this very question, and I replied, ‘I live inside my own heart’. Of course, I was based in the US, while we were shooting Our Souls At Night but now I am working in Mumbai. I go where a film takes me. But I think it’s very important for anyone to live within ones heart,” he says.

Our Souls At Night is about second chances, love and companionship. Two elderly people, who have both lost their spouses — played by Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, longtime friends and colleagues — end up being companions to each other, to make their lonely nights bearable. “I had received a call from Robert (Redford)’s office. He had seen The Lunchbox, and wanted to pick my brains for adapting the book, Our Souls At Night, by Kent Haruf. I am a great fan of Haruf, in particular his book Benediction. I would have jumped at any chance to work with Robert. It all worked out within a few days. We were shooting within a couple of months,” shares Batra.

The Sense of an Ending, too, was based on the eponymous book by Julian Barnes. “Filmmaking is hard work, period. You are managing 400 plus people and harnessing their energy to manifest your vision. Throw in a book into the mix and it gets tougher. Also, one has to decide — how far to stray from the written word, or how closely to adhere to it. Many a times, what works in a book does not work for the screen. Haruf’s book lent itself cinematically, so it was easy. Also Scott Neustadteer and Michael H Weber, did a fantastic job of adapting it (they are the ones who adapted The Fault in Our Stars and 500 Days of Summer). But I prefer writing my own projects,” says Batra.

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ritesh batra, Our Souls At Night, lunchbox, lunchbox director, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, netflix, Nawazuddin Siddique
Ritesh Batra

Batra, 37, is a lot younger than his many protagonists. In spite of his youth, he seemed to have captured the intricacies of complex human relationships. Mature romance is familiar territory for Batra, if his filmography is anything to go by. The Lunchbox dealt with two middle-aged people, who find love through letters, A Sense Of an Ending had an old man revisiting his ex girlfriend. “Well, I suppose, I have always had mature people around me,” says Batra and laughs. “Obviously, I am attracted to this material. But, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about why I do what I do,” he adds.

Before hitting the floors, the three – Robert Redford, Jane Fonda and Batra – had spent a whole week holed up in a hotel room, rehearsing. “It was a very special and intense time. These two – Fonda and Redford – go back a long way. They were very involved with the script and the process. It’s a very intimate film, and the characters make it so. Also we sourced in a lot of locals. It would not have worked had we got actors from New York or LA and set them in the film,” says Batra.

Batra, born and brought up in a middle-class household in Mumbai, is no stranger to the US. He studied economics at Drake University Iowa, and has even been a consultant with Deloitte for three years. But films being an inherent calling. He enrolled to study filmmaking at NYU, New York, and then dropped out midway. He arrived in Mumbai to make a documentary on the famed dabbawallahs of the city. The result was The Lunchbox.

Now, back to his favourite hunting grounds and currently taking a break from scouting locations and conducting recce in the city for his next project Photographer, Batra is an excited man. “I am working with this big ensemble cast. It has Nawazuddin Siddique, Geetanjali Kulkarni and Sanya Malhotra in the lead,” he says.