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Interview Hindi

Ritesh Batra: I don’t want to be slave to a release date

The Lunchbox director speaks about Photograph (2018) with Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra and about launching his own production company, Poetic License Motion Pictures.

Sonal Pandya

Filmmaker Ritesh Batra spent the past few years on international sets working with Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling on films like The Sense Of An Ending (2017) and Our Souls At Night (2017). With his latest film, he is back on familiar home territory.

Cinestaan.com spoke with the filmmaker at a bustling Bandra restaurant, Kitchen Garden, before he headed back to the United States. Batra revealed a few details about Photograph (2018), the goals of his company, Poetic License Motion Pictures, and working with cinematic legends.

Photograph, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra, is the first production of Batra’s company. One gets a sense that Batra relished shooting in India.

He was reunited with many of the crew of his breakout debut film, The Lunchbox (2013), which won the Grand Rail d'Or at the International Critics' Week at the 2013 Cannes film festival. Production designer Shruti Gupte, line producer Smriti Mishra and costume designer Niharika Bhasin have all returned for Photograph.

“It’s nice working with the same team again and again,” Batra said, stating that his direction team from The Lunchbox is also the same.

Siddiqui, who played Irrfan Khan’s affable co-worker in The Lunchbox, has stepped up as lead actor for this film. His co-star Malhotra was chosen after Batra watched her in Dangal (2016) and thought she was wonderful in it. 

With Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra on the sets of Photograph (2018)

Batra rattled off an impressive list of artistes who are in the ensemble cast from Geetanjali Kulkarni to Sachin Khedekar. “Geetanjali Kulkarni has a very important part. Jim Sarbh has a small, interesting part, he is a great actor. Vijay Raaz [and] Sachin Khedekar too,” he confirmed. 

This project was something he looked forward to working on for a long time. “I think [Photograph] looks at things through a nostalgic lens. I’m pretty nostalgic about a lot of things, so that hopefully shows in my work,” Batra said. 

He wrote Photograph over the past two-three years and tinkered with it while working on his other commitments. Batra is firm that he wants the content produced under Poetic License Motion Pictures to travel globally. 

“For Photograph, for example, we put it together through global pre-sales, so we sold the movie in every territory of the world. Amazon bought it for India, the US and Japan. We have a different distributor everywhere," he said. "That’s how we got 100% independence to make the movie.

"[Photograph] is already economically viable. It’s a big responsibility for us, you have to deliver the film that people have believed in. But aside from that, I think just the guarantee that your content is going to travel is great for the film and for our company.”

After Photograph, the company will focus on a film directed by Batra’s directing assistant Raj More and a five-part web series that Batra himself will direct. He believes there is not enough content that deserves the talent of the good artistes India has. 

Batra simply wants Poetic License Motion Pictures to tell good stories. “We want to make content that is set locally in India and travels around the world," he said. "That’s that simple. We have stories that have great Indian actors in them and [those] that have a combination of both Indian and Western actors. I think we are well positioned to do that as a company.”

Batra worked with Netflix on Our Souls At Night which was released on the streaming platform in September this year. Batra believes the process is just the same as working for a traditional studio. 

“The stakes are still high, you are working with big stars, you are dealing with a big budget," he said. "It has to go out for reviews, it has to have a big premiere, all those things have to happen. So I don’t think it’s any different, as an exercise of filmmaking.”

But he was thankful for the good fortune of working with movie legends like Redford, Fonda and Rampling on his last few projects. 

With Robert Redford on the sets of Our Souls At Night (2017). Courtesy: Ritesh Batra

“Working with someone like [Robert Redford] is really inspiring," Batra said. "He is such a generous soul, a good listener, and a great director himself.

"He was on my set, he was so happy being an actor. We had a really great collaboration, a great give-and-take."

Batra said he was very happy to have been able to work with artistes who are all so different from one another. "I have learnt a lot from each of them," he said. "I have learnt a lot from watching Charlotte Rampling work, from watching Irrfan work, I learnt a tremendous amount from watching Robert work, just going through scenes really being the first audience for him, talking through it with him.”

He went on to praise his Photograph artistes as well, from Malhotra to Kulkarni. And he enjoyed working with Siddiqui again. “We have a shorthand now," he revealed. "Just trying things and being very brave on this movie [since] I thought this is the second time we are working together. We tried some interesting things and took things to places where both of us had imagined. It’s a real privilege, working with the actors and the camera, trying to make it all join in together.”

On the sets of Photograph (2018)

The filmmaker's busy schedule has kept him from watching any new Indian releases and he was keen to get some recommendations. For now, however, working on Photograph will keep him occupied.

Asked about a possible release date for Photograph, he said, “I like to edit a movie, then do the sound design at leisure, and do the music. Put it all together [without] the pressure of the release date. That’s how movies should be made, with love and care. Not with the ticking clock of a release date. That was one of my reasons for starting the company, to give myself that kind of leeway where I can write and work at my own pace. I don’t want to be slave to a release date.”