Mumbai-born writer-director Ritesh Batra took a series of unconventional decisions to get to the big league. Equipped with an Economics degree from Drake University, in Iowa, Batra first worked for Deloitte, a top accounting and consulting firm. After three years at Deloitte, Batra quit to enroll in the graduate film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
A thoughtful risk taker, Batra dropped out of NYU in 2010 to take a crack at making his first feature film, “The Lunchbox.” He was selected by the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters labs to work on his feature project.
“I went to NYU briefly before I kind of shamefully dropped out. At the same time, if I hadn’t dropped out and taken a risk I wouldn’t have made my movie," said Batra.
The Hindi-language movie won Batra a prize at Cannes and went on to become an art-house smash hit. "The Lunchbox" starring Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur was embraced by global audiences and became the third highest grossing foreign film in America in 2014.
Batra's next film is a movie adaptation of English author Julian Barnes’ Man Booker-winning novel “The Sense of an Ending”, with Jim Broadbent and Emily Mortimer in lead roles. The film is about Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), a cautious, divorced man in his 60s, who tries to live in a cocoon. It's about Tony’s futile search for closure to his long-ago college relationship and attempt to correct past failures.
Batra has also directed an adaptation of Kent Haruf’s novel “Our Souls at Night,” with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda which is set to release on video streaming service Netflix this year.
Batra, 37, who has been named by “Variety” as one of “10 Directors to Watch,” sat down for an interview with Braingainmag.com.
1. Are you feeling the pressure after being named one of “10 Directors to Watch” by Variety, along with Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight.”
I take it in stride. What else can you do? My dad’s in the merchant navy and my mum’s a yoga teacher. I am not even supposed to be making movies! It’s a real privilege to be doing this. Telling brilliant actors what you want and having front row seats to seeing them slip into characters and do their thing.
2. How do you create such offbeat and eye-catching crossover films and what endears your films to both the West and India?
I knew "The Lunchbox" script had potential to travel. Therefore, I got an Indian producer on board who was open to collaboration. I wanted it to be an international coproduction. The film's total budget of about $1.5 million came from producers in India, France, Germany and America. When you have international financing it makes a difference — it helps the film a lot strategically. We also had an American cinematographer and editor, a German sound engineer and composer and so on. So it makes it a universal product. Collaborating makes it artistically relevant to other cultures and it can be seen widely.
After “The Lunchbox”, I was looking for the right thing to do. When BBC Films offered me the opportunity to film the adaptation of Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending.” I jumped on it as it is just one of those books I’ve always carried with me. When I was finishing “The Sense of an Ending,” I got a call saying Robert Redford would like to talk to you. You can’t plan that! It may well have not worked, but we did shoot "Our Souls at Night." You just hope that you keep getting to make movies you want to make.
3. Your breakthrough project was "The Lunchbox" which you wrote and directed. Given your proclivity for your own source material how did Julian Barnes' novel, “The Sense of an Ending" strike a chord with you?
I like to write my own material, but I read the “The Sense of an Ending" in 2011 when it came out and was instantly attracted to it. The book is about missed opportunity and the protagonist Tony Webster's search for closure. Sadly, closure is essentially something which evades us as human beings, but we still look for a sense of an ending or whatever you want to call it. Ultimately, the past we choose to forget and the nostalgia we hold in our own lives are the reasons audiences will identify with Tony’s story.
I shared a room growing up with my grandfather for the first 18 years of my life and the last 18 of his, because that’s what you do in Mumbai — you live with your parents and grandparents. I saw his sort of loneliness and his regret and everything he went through in that stage in life. I got to see it in close quarters so I’d like to think I can bring something to a story like this.
4. Would you say your movie is more sunny than the book with the emotionally fraught excavation of Tony's past ultimately inspiring him to try for a better future with his daughter and ex-wife?
When Nick and I were collaborating on the script we definitely grappled with how do we tell the story about a novel as a movie. Where do we take advantage of poetic license? Movies have to be told through relationships, literature and books don't necessarily have to be told through relationships. You make a good observation in that we told the story through relationships. The book is one man’s interior monologue with an audience, but in the movie we fleshed out Tony's relationship with his ex-wife. We also created a relationship with Tony’s daughter, out of air, to frame the story.
5. What would you tell young film-making students?
Even with source material, find your own story. With making movies you’re often adapting a book, but you really need to have your own take on it. You have to be able to stray from the rigid structures of a faithful adaptation.
When I met the author Julian Barnes he reassured me about the adaptation process saying the best way to be loyal as a filmmaker is to be disloyal to the book. The last thing he said was "go ahead and betray me." I hope we populated Julian’s universe in a way that’s true to the movie and the book and they can exist together as complements.
6. You have made movies on three different continents: "Lunchbox" in India, "Sense of an Ending" in Britain and "Our Souls at Night" in Colorado. How is it different shooting with an Indian, British and American crew?
Indian director Ritesh Batra and actor Jim Broadbent
The whole machinery of making a movie is surprisingly similar in India, Britain and Hollywood even if the budgets are different. In the US, it is more of an organized machine. When I was shooting “Our Souls at Night”, I found that I had a big crew and everyone’s role was defined. If you want to do something free-form, it is a bit harder. In Colorado, I would find that the crew had worked on the light studies for the next day, and so on. It was a level of preparation even I was not prepared for.
7. As a director why do you like working with the same editor?
I always try and work with the same music composer (Max Richter) and film editor (John Lyons). I would love to always work with the same people on every movie but geography doesn't support that often. John and I spend a lot of time together in the editing room, talking through the story and getting its rhythm right. It's a very close collaboration and there's a lot of shorthand involved. Movies, in many ways, are crafted on the editing table.
8. What is your directorial process with actors?
Helping the actors explore their character’s motivations and innermost thoughts and feelings is a big part of the rehearsal and filming process. You just have to keep this sort of sense of discovery alive and make sure the work keeps speaking to you, and you’re sort of talking back to it. I think the worst thing you could do with a movie is show up and go through the process of covering beat, after beat, after beat mechanically. You need to keep the work alive for yourself and for the actors.
9. Did you find collaborating with British and American actors very different from your experience directing Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur on “The Lunchbox."
Working with Robert Redford isn't very different than working with Charlotte Rampling. But different actors work differently. When I was working on "The Lunchbox," Nimrat Kaur enjoyed rehearsals. Irrfan and Charlotte are very similar actors, they bring something from deep within themselves and you have to recognize that and preserve that on set for them. And they're always trying to dig deeper.
10. You enrolled at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts film program but dropped out. Do you think it's important to have formal training in film-making especially if you want to be a director?
I think everyone learns differently. Plenty of successful directors have created their own apprenticeships to replace a film school education. You learn constantly on the job, and by making films. I would never encourage anyone to drop out. I spoke recently in a NYU class and if I could go back in time I probably wouldn't have dropped out from school. At the same time, if I hadn't dropped out I wouldn't have made my movie "The Lunchbox."
Learning is such an individual, personal thing. Some people gain so much by going to film school and absorbing things through the traditional, structured learning style, while others thrive by learning on the job. I thought I would go back to NYU if it didn't work out, but never got a chance to go back.
The only thing I can tell you is that film making is not a traditional career choice. It is about taking a risk. I would be concerned if my daughter, who is still young were to tell me she wanted a career in film making. Of course, I would support her in any way I can. Movies are a fickle business, and it doesn't get any easier or certain as time goes on. There's always an element of uncertainty. There's another unnerving aspect — very public success or failure — that can be tough for some people to handle. But you can only put yourself out there whether you are writing your own story or dealing with an adaptation. Always keep it personal and close. Take a creative risk.
Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.