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« Posterized: Keanu Reeves | Main | Would you rather? »
Friday
May172019

Interview: Ritesh Batra on 'Photograph' and why he makes movies about longing

by Murtada Elfadl

By his own admission Ritesh Batra makes movies about longing. Movies about people trying to connect. That was evident in The Lunchbox (2013), where two strangers meet and bond through a case of mistaken lunch deliveries. In Our Souls at Night (2017) two older neighbors - played by Jane Fonda and Robert Redford - try to fill their lonely nights by sleeping in the same bed, for companionship not sex.

In his latest film, Photograph, two strangers from different backgrounds also try to connect. He’s Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a struggling street photographer. She’s Sanya (Sanya Malhotra) a shy Accounting student. They meet when he takes her photo at the Gateway of India, the famous arch monument in Mumbai. Rafi is being pressured to marry by his grandmother so he convinces Sanya to pose as his fiancée during a family visit. The film tells more with the silences between the strangers than any words, Batra is able to let emotions rise quietly but clearly to the audience. We recently interviewed him in New York about why these themes keep attracting him. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity...

Murtada Elfadl: I noticed a through line, in your movies, from The Lunchbox through Our Souls At Night to this movie of people trying to connect. Whether in ways conventional or unconventional. Can you talk about that?

Ritesh Batra: I don't know. I think all these movies are somehow about longing, so maybe that's something that's just come my way and I had a chance to deal with it.

You said longing. Can you talk about why that interests you?

When you see a movie, often it's, different than reading a book for example. You can say it's about loneliness, but when you're working with actors, and I found that out on The Lunchbox, you can't tell an actor to act lonely. You can't tell them, sit down and be lonely. So we got into conversations about longing. You can't shoot loneliness, but you can shoot longing and that maybe comes through. It's something specific for an actor to do. Also from a writing perspective, from a film making perspective longing is a much more active condition. I feel like all these movies that are about longing in some measure because it's something that you can actually actually show.

Your two main characters don't say much to each other. There is a lot in silence. How did fill those silences with emotion?

I think you're asking me about how we went about working on that? Sanya is a really good actor, and so is Nawaz. What we did was often take away lines between takes. Shoot a scene as in the script, then dial back with less words. Once an actor has said something or done something in a take, it's in the air. So when you take away the line, it's still going to be there.

So when you take away the line, does that mean the script was different than what you ended up with?

It wasn't that different. In the process of working with good actors, you find out that you can do with less dialogue and that's always interesting. If the actor's doing something often they don't need to say much. Especially with Sanya's character because she doesn't get to make her own decisions, other people are speaking for her all the time. Her voice has been taken away until she meets, Rafi. And so it became interesting to just take away her lines as much as possible. That's how we worked on the script, we really didn't change much except we reduced the lines within the scenes.

I wanted to ask you about your depiction of class in the film. It like comes through in several instances. There are comments from the taxi driver about them being together. There is Sanya's friendship with the domestic worker at home. Why was it important to show class differences? It's hardly ever depicted in American movies.

You know, I've lived in a couple of different places, and I spent most of my life here (in the US). I know it's very rare that you would see it, especially now that things are becoming in a way separate. You wouldn't see a plumber and a banker getting a drink together for example. It would never happen in India, it would never happen in the US and it would definitely never happen in England. Even in India where I grew up, this kind of relationship would never happen. This level of interaction would be a transaction. How much was that? And here's the change and that's it. You know?

So I was interested iin making a movie about what would happen if these lives actually intersected. I don't know if it's a commentary on class because you can't get really into the business of commentary. It was all about how do you make this plausible? It's a fairy tale about two people from different classes, from different worlds, pretty much. What will happen in their lives intersected. It's still a fairy tale, this would never happen in real life.

Let's shift gears a little bit and talk about something else. This movie is for Amazon. You've made a movie for Netflix. There's a lot of chatter about streaming versus exhibition. Where do you stand?

This movie is going to be released in movie theaters , people will be able to see it there. But it's so tough. It's so tough. I thought about this a lot when we were putting it together and I was talking to the composer and the editor. I said, these characters would have been happier in a different time. When life was simpler, slower in a way. I have an old phone but I'm still feel bombarded all the time and life just doesn't seem to stop and it feels so full. It's overwhelming, it feels so fast. And if people can come into this movie in a theater and feel like time has slowed down, hopefully we are doing a good turn for society.

To answer the question; I think the theatrical experience is going to survive. Of course. I think the streaming companies and movie theaters are going to find a way to work together because at the end of the day, they need each other. But at the same time, you know, I feel like it's hard for people to make it to movie theaters. two tickets plus the popcorn, you gotta be rich to go to the movies. And that's not easy.

As a filmmaker, do you get more freedom when you're working with a streamer to tell your story any way you want to tell it?

Definitely. That's been true of both my experiences with Netflix and Amazon. I experienced it with this film, which I really appreciate.

So does that make you want to work more for streaming companies?

Yeah, absolutely. It's not just a question of them being hands off only. But rather the joy in the whole process. As you go further in your career, you want to work with like minded people. I think I've become better at choosing collaborators in general. One of the reasons that artists are gravitating towards streamers is not about technology, but creative freedom. It's not cash, it's creative freedom.

What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

I hope people would take the film home with them. I worked hard on that, not necessarily about the movie being open ended, but it's really about people thinking about the characters. The movie shouldn't end in the movie theater or in the or in the streaming device. It should continue to live on.


Photograph is in select theaters starting today and will be on Amazon soon.

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Reader Comments (1)

Nathaniel looks hot with a tan.

May 21, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

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