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‘The Lunchbox’ director Ritesh Batra’s latest film with Robert Redford puts him in the big league

He’s just three feature films old, but filmmaker Ritesh Batra has become the only Indian director after Shekhar Kapur to project his creativity to a global audience

brunch Updated: Sep 30, 2017 21:14 IST
Priyanka Sinha Jha
Priyanka Sinha Jha
Hindustan Times
Ritesh Batra,The Lunchbox,script
Ritesh Batra, 37, has been declared by Variety magazine as the film director to watch out for; Location courtesy: Birdsong - The Organic Café, Mumbai; Make-up and hair by Ashish Moitra (ashu_ mois)(Prabhat Shetty)

Things seem to have worked very well for filmmaker Ritesh Batra, writer and director of the Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur movie, The Lunchbox. Since making his debut with that film in 2013, Batra has gone on to direct a BBC produced film, The Sense of An Ending, based on Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning novel by the same name, and is now awaiting the release of his third film, Our Souls At Night, an American indie film based on a novel by the same name by Kent Haruf.

The film, made for streaming giant Netflix, premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in early September, and given that Hollywood star Robert Redford is both the lead and the producer, playing opposite the equally famous Jane Fonda, there is much excitement around it.

Batra’s story is deeply inspiring, not only for young filmmakers like himself, but also for any Indian with a dream. Think about it: Only on his third film release now, and beginning production on his fourth under his own banner, Poetic Licence, 37-year-old Batra has been declared by Variety magazine as a film director to watch out for, and is the first Indian director after Shekhar Kapur to have had a successful crossover to the West after a purely Indian production.

This could be serendipity, or so the director would have you believe. More likely, it has to do with merit and enterprise. Because how else could a rank outsider to the movies business build an international career on his own steam?

Choices and chances

Batra’s filmmaking journey displays great consistency and focus (Prabhat Shetty)

I meet Ritesh Batra at the minimalistic Birdsong - The Organic Café in the bylanes of Bandra, Mumbai. He wears a casual air and speaks about his meteoric career trajectory in the simple, understated style that marks his movies.

Batra attributes his remarkable journey to the good fortune of meeting kind strangers and his refusal to align with commercial or art cinema camps. “Nothing is ever a deliberate plan,” he says. “In retrospect, you can retrace your steps and say I did this or that. But truly, in life, one thing leads to another and chance encounters happen along the way. For instance, when I went to film school in NYU, we had a class with somebody from Sundance Institute. I went up to her and said, ‘I have this script and I would like to share it with you’. She gave me her email and I sent it across. And then, when I was at the Sundance Film Festival I met Robert (Redford, the founder of Sundance Institute). When I was talking about this new film with him, he remembered me from that time, and he had also watched The Lunchbox, so I got a chance to work with him.”

“There is a lot of chance involved,” he adds. “You can always rationalise your way through it, but it’s true. Karan Johar was a stranger when he supported The Lunchbox. Irrfan didn’t know who I was when he read that script. He liked it, and him coming on board was a big way to get the movie ahead. When I started collaborating with Nimrat, we did not know each other. It is always the kindness of strangers, and it goes both ways.”

“KARAN JOHAR WAS A STRANGER WHEN HE SUPPORTED THE LUNCHBOX. IRRFAN DIDN’T KNOW WHO I WAS WHEN HE READ THE SCRIPT. I MET ROBERT [REDFORD] AT THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, AND HE HAD WATCHED MY FILM, SO I GOT A CHANCE TO WORK WITH HIM”

Batra’s assessment is both realistic and modest. Still, helming international films with a worldwide audience is the stuff that urban legends are made of. The Lunchbox won all major Indian awards and also landed a nomination at BAFTA. Most importantly, it was hailed for being the first Indian film to be the highest grossing foreign language film in the indie/art house circuit in the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

His filmmaking journey displays great consistency and focus. Yet, Batra still credits everything to serendipity. “It’s been about just one thing leading to another,” he says. “Now because of this movie with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, I can come back here to Mumbai and set up the movie that I wanted to make years ago, and set it up the way I wanted to, with the budget I wanted for it. Also, for me, it’s important to get out of the country and come back again to stay good or what I think is good. But I also have a very specific type of agenda, about empowering myself to make things the way I want them.”

Yeh hai Mumbai, meri jaan

Isolation and loneliness are an essential part of his oeuvre and Batra has tackled these in all three of his films (Prabhat Shetty)

Although he has been working outside the country for the past couple of years, Batra is happy to be back in his own city. For over a month he has been in Mumbai, quietly prepping and scouting locations. Downtown Mumbai dotted with grand colonial structures from the British era, and Irani cafés are his favourites. “It’s also better to always have the outsider’s eye. I enjoy being a foreigner, or in this case an outsider. If I always have an outsider’s eye, it makes things better – I know that I write better,” he says.

He recalls his student days in Sydenham College. Although he bunked most classes, he enjoyed the opportunities for extra-curricular activities. “I didn’t get much of an education there because I don’t remember sitting in a class,” he laughs. What he does remember well is a minor display of rebellion. “Just out of spite, I had taken Hindi and not French,” he says. “I remember writing a Hindi paper and there was an essay you had to write, so I just randomly wrote the Lifebuoy ad jingle because I wanted to know if somebody was actually reading the paper or not. Of course, I failed because somebody was reading it!”

His quirky city adventures include frequenting bookstores like Danai (which has since closed). He’d spend hours reading there, and go to the store again and again till he finished reading the books for free. Today, buying books is a favourite indulgence. But he’ll never write a book himself.

“Being an author is so lonely,” he muses. “Actually, even being a director is so lonely. As a director, you don’t really get a chance to meet other directors. And writing is even lonelier; it requires discipline. It requires five to 10 years of sitting down and then producing something, perhaps it could turn out to be great, perhaps not.”

Isolation and loneliness are an essential part of his oeuvre. He has tackled these in all three of his films. They are something he understands well. “Urban loneliness is a very big idea to combat. I am not in the business of combating it. I let it seep into me,” he says. “There are a lot of things you put in your subconscious, and they come out in different ways. When I wrote The Lunchbox, there was this whole sort of a subplot when Ila (the heroine) contemplates jumping off the building with her child. After we finished the movie, I came across an article I had filed away from a period of time when a lot of women were jumping off buildings in Mumbai. I didn’t remember it. But the thought just came out in some way. Usually it’s better if it comes out through your work.”

Defining Ritesh Batra

(From left) Ritesh Batra (center) seen here with Robert Redford ( far left) and Jane Fonda at the 74th Venice Film Festival in September, after the screening of his film Our Souls At Night (Getty Images); His film The Lunchbox was well received globally

“Less is more,” is a statement that Batra wrote and underlined on his copy of the script while filming The Lunchbox. This is his defining trait.

Despite his ascent to fame and success, there has been no attempt to make a lifestyle upgrade. He still retains his old Volkswagen Golf, and he lives in the Bandra flat that’s been home for a long time. He is grateful that he has made enough to support his family. His middle-class frugality with money – his father worked for the Merchant Navy and his mother was a housewife – refuses to dissipate, despite his achievements.

“I am not rich by any standard, but comfortable. I am lucky that money has come my way through these movies,” he says. “But between projects, I still wonder what I’ll do next. So now I’m creating a production company to do other things too. I am producing my next movie. In all, we are working on two films and two series.”

Though his films all have a certain theme in common, he does not fear being stereotyped. Instead, he sees this as aspirational. “I hear people say they want to work across different genres and I wonder if that’s really possible if you are trying to do honest good work. I wonder – How can I make a horror movie? How can I make a thriller? I can’t do that if I have to be absolutely honest. I can’t make romcoms as I feel life is so inherently sad. Even though there are some comic moments in my films, for me, the films I work on are not comedies, because they are also sad. Filmmaking is not about carving out your niche, but about being who you are. I hope that one day people can watch a film and clearly say that it’s my film.”

With the world watching (his film, Our Souls At Night that just premiered on Netflix) – Batra’s wish may soon be a reality.

(The writer is a senior Bollywood journalist and the editor of Screen, and has authored the book Supertraits of Superstars)

From HT Brunch, October 1, 2017

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First Published: Sep 30, 2017 21:14 IST