Director Ritesh Batra, who made the compelling romance ‘The Lunchbox’, returns to his roots in Mumbai with ‘Photograph’, out in the UAE on March 14.
Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra, the film chronicles an unlikely relationship between a man who makes a living taking photographs of tourists outside the Gateway of India in Mumbai and a middle-class young woman. They come from different worlds, but forge a bond.
‘Photograph’, which travelled to international film festivals such as Sundance Film Festival and Berlin Film Festival last year, opened to good reviews on the festival circuit.
Excerpts from our interview with director Batra on his latest film, his enduring affair with Mumbai and more…
Q: Are you pleasantly surprised that a film like ‘Photograph’ is releasing in the UAE?
A: It was funny the other day. Someone called me from the UAE and it turns out that the distributor in the UAE was studying with me in the same school in [Mumbai] years ago. We studied together in fifth or fourth grade. We were 10 years old or something. It was funny.
Q: After films like ‘The Lunchbox’ and ‘Our Souls At Night’, have you become the director for feel-good movies?
A: ‘Photograph’ isn’t a feel-good film, honestly. I am the worst person to be talking to while marketing a film. It’s a story that spawned from the Hindi movies that we had in the 80s and 90s where there’s a poor guy and a rich girl falling in love. But I wanted to make it real and organic so that you believe like it’s really happening. That is what I wanted to do. And I found these wonderful actors like Nawaz and Sanya who made it look organic. ‘Photograph’ is a story of two people who are unlikely to meet or have a conversation beyond ‘kitna hua’ [how much money?]. The film is about how there’s something inside them that makes them want to spend time with each other. I feel like the good things are in the small things in life. Honestly, I don’t spend time thinking about myself or the kind of films I make. During the making of the film, I think about what should be said and what should remain unsaid.
Q: Since it’s about two people wanting to spend time with each other. Is this film highly conversational and hyper-verbalised?
A: Not really. The movie is about those undefined relationships that you have in your life. The ones that have definition are the ones that you call friends or colleagues. ‘Photograph’ is about two people from unlikely worlds who have a relationship that cannot be defined. I was interested in that. There’s an undefined quality to it. The seed came from the 80s and 90s Hindi romances where a rich girl falls in love with a poor boy and their impossible relationship. All the forces outside them were trying to break them apart. So I wanted to turn that concept inside out.
Q: Speaking about the films in the 80 and 90s, weren’t those protagonists a portrait of privilege, entitlement and brattiness? They weren’t particularly lovable. Has that narrative changed with ‘Photograph’?
A: I don’t know if it has changed in real life. But ‘Photograph’ is really a fantasy of sorts. The character of Sanya, Miloni, is yet to learn or discover who she really is. She finds out a little bit about herself through her interaction with Nawaz’s character. Miloni doesn’t nobilise herself too much. She had other people in her family speaking for her and making all the decisions. So in a way, her interaction with Nawaz was the first time that she tasted freedom. My characters are nice and endearing. Nawaz’s character is a photographer working outside the Gateway of India and Sanya’s character is a girl who is studying for her accountancy degree. They are typical Mumbai people.
Q: Your debut film ‘The Lunchbox’, which was Bafta nominated, created a big buzz. How do you outdo the success of your first film?
A: I don’t have a big body of work. I just go from movie to movie. I just got started. I often go wrong. With every movie, you will find out more about yourself. Movie making is not different from any other creative job. If you learn a bit about yourself with every movie, then I am happy with that. With ‘Lunchbox’, I spent so many years trying to get that movie made. I spent four years working on the script. During that time, I understood why I wanted to make films. For me, filmmaking is about writing, shooting and editing. It gave me great joy. Now that I get the chance to do this for a living, I feel very lucky. I would have made movies for free anyway. All I want to do is work on movies. I never sit and think about how do I outdo my success of my first film. You can’t think like that as it’s not a productive way to live your life. I want to live in the now. You cannot live your life wondering if my film will do as well as my first one. It’s not my job. That’s for others to do.
Q: Mumbai is always a character in your film. Is there a hint of nostalgia there?
A: I grew up in Mumbai, but I left this city when I was 18. I look at this city from a layered lens of nostalgia. I know what it used to be. I feel that every filmmaker should know what they know about and what they are familiar with. I just know what Bombay used to be. So there will be a lot of nostalgia in my films.
Don’t miss it!
‘Photograph’ releases in the UAE on March 14.
Did you know?
Nimrat Kaur has written the Hindi dialogues in ‘Photograph’.
“She is a wonderful collaborator. I trust her creatively and I love to run my ideas by her. Actors are the smartest people in the world as they react to things in an innate manner. Nimrat is so great with Hindi dialogues. She helped me with ‘The Lunchbox’ too.”