Prior to the release of Photograph, filmmaker Ritesh Batra talks to Titas Chowdhury about his love for yesteryear Mumbai, sketching stories and more
Your last Hindi film, The Lunchbox and now Photograph are both like a love letter to Mumbai. The city becomes a character in your films.
That is because of my love for the city. I grew up here. I know it well and I know how it used to be. When we were shooting for Photograph, we were shooting the characters. We were shooting Sanya’s (Malhotra) character in a certain way and Nawaz’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) character in a certain way that made sense. The city is just something that seeps in. These characters can only be from the city and so the city is also inside them. Then it is also obviously around them.
I always think about shooting a movie through the characters or visiting a place through the characters. I would not think about only showing the city because that would be another exercise. Then we would not be making a movie, we would be making a video about the city. But I always appreciate when people say that because it is always nice to hear that Mumbai is a character in my films. That is how it should be in the end. When we are making something, we are always thinking about the characters. Most of my characters come from this city. That just ends up happening, always.
What is it about strangers, their stories and their relationships that fascinate you?
Photograph is about two people who find corners in their hearts that they did not know existed and through the story, they end up discovering things about themselves they did not know before. That bit where you find a person and how that person helps you find out more about yourself interests me a lot. It is just that I end up spending a whole lot of time thinking about myself (Laughs).
What did you see in the sprightly and feisty girl of Dangal that made you feel she fit the role of a mellow and quiet girl in Photograph?
I saw her (Sanya Malhotra) in Dangal and I thought she was very good in that film. I sent her the script and she came in to audition for it. Through the auditioning process, we saw that she was by far the best person to have auditioned for Miloni’s part. She is meticulous, detailed, and she can do a lot with her silences. Her character has a lot of silences. She does a lot without words. She seemed like a natural fit for the part in many ways. We are very lucky to have her on board.
There is nostalgia all over the film. Is it your ode to old-world charm and yesteryear music?
I left Bombay when I was 18, in 1998. I know that city; I do not know this city so well. The film is shot in present-day. We shot it in late 2017, early 2018. I always look at Bombay through the lens of nostalgia. Maybe that has something to do with it. If I had not left it, my films would have been different. As far as stolen glances and silences are concerned… when you have silences, how can words be more important? Often, silences resonate more and feel important than words are. Sometimes, silences convey a lot more.
Are the characters of Rafi and Miloni inspired by real life? How did you sketch them?
When I was growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were movies about the poor guy and the rich girl. The poor guy was always a motor mechanic. I wanted to make a film about a poor guy and a somewhat rich girl and make it believable, so that when you watch the movie, you feel like this is really happening since things like this never really happen.
I was always thinking about how we can make every scene feel like it is actually happening. People spend time with each other for a reason; there is something inside them that drives them to do that. I wanted to work around that and make a movie that felt real. Finding these characters helped me write the film. I wrote what is now the last scene of the movie, first. For me, it is always about earning that last scene. Photograph is about two people spending time together. But sometimes, I write the plot and then figure out how the characters can earn it. Usually, I sketch the characters and build the plot simultaneously.
Photograph was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and the Berlinale. Do you think international exposure will help the film in its theatrical run?
Film festivals are cultural events. Festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival are like markets where distributors around the world get to watch your movie and buy it for their territories. After we screened at Sundance, the movie was sold around the world. So it is going to be in theatres in every country of the world, which is great for us not just from a business sense but also from a cultural export point of view.
At film festivals, we can export our stories and our talent. At Berlin, Sanya was named one of the five talents to watch out for and it feels great if your talent is named. It feels absolutely wonderful. For me, festivals serve not only as a platform to showcase films, but also a market to sell your films internationally. That is its real function and real value. You can also connect with your audience there.
You also did Our Souls At Night for Netflix. How do you look at digital platforms for film viewing?
Streaming platforms are a big gift. They solve a lot of problems about distribution. I really appreciate platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. It is great that there are so many avenues today to tell stories.