NZIFF 51 Interview: Photograph Director Ritesh Batra

Following up on his festival fave, The Lunchbox, director Ritesh Batra returns with Photograph, a charming romance set in the middle of bustling Mumbai.

The film follows a poor street photographer as he convinces a shy middle class girl to pose as his fiance in order to end his grandmother’s well-intentioned meddling.

The result is a sensitive portrait of two people dealing with issues such as class, tradition and religion with subdued, but memorable performances by the two leads, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhortra.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to director Ritesh Batra about the making of Photograph and the filmmaker’s relationship with his hometown of Mumbai.

Click here to listen to the interview:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

M: Maybe you can start out by telling me what the genesis of the film is, how you came about to start writing it?

R: The genesis really was that last scene. it tends to happen to me a lot in writing, when I’m writing something the scene and it doesn’t have to be the last scene, but I’ll write a scene and then that becomes what the movie is about and then I start trying to figure out. I didn’t have a clear sense of where it was going to go in the movie, but I started to become really curious about these two characters who are having that dialogue. I knew I had a sense that she was somewhat of a rich girl and he’s a poor guy and then I just started working backwards and forwards from there. And then while we were doing the whole process that became a flashback and it became the last scene in the movie. But truly that scene was the genesis of it. Also when I was growing up I used to have a lot of these Bollywood movies which had the same story but they were all sort of taming of the shrew riffs….one’s a rich girl and she’s a shrew and then there’s a poor guy.It came from there, it came from trying to make it more realistic and grounded and saying that in today’s age because these kinds of relationships wouldn’t happen, you don’t go beyond the transaction, like how much is that and here’s the change. People have to sustain conversations over the course of the film. I was really interested in seeing how we can do that.

M: Is that normally how you work with your films, kind of backwards, or is this something new?

R: It’s a lot of backwards and forwards, and backwards and forwards. You don’t always start in the beginning, it’s impossible. You need to start somewhere, you have to start somewhere and then you usually go backwards from there and then forwards, it’s just a whole backwards and forwards process really, the writing process.

M: Then of course, the two main actors, obviously the way that they come across and interact with each other is important, so how did you come across the two of them and decide that they were the ones that fit those characters?

R: With Nawazuddin, I had worked with him on Lunchbox. He was the second lead in that movie, so I had sent him the script when I was done with it, and with Sanya we did a lot of auditions, we auditioned a lot of people for that part. I was very pleased when she came in and she auditioned for it and she was really great.

M: What did you see in her?

R: What you see in the movie I think, that she can do a lot without words. I mean she didn’t have much to dialogue in the movie in the first place and we had to take away even more. It was really lovely working with her.

M: I was particularly taken, as you said there’s not a lot of dialogue in the movie but there’s a lot being said. One scene that stands out in my mind, is when the two of them are on the bus together before they had their first real conversation and he’s sitting behind her, maybe you can run through what’s going on there?

R: I don’t know, I think it’s always difficult when a movie is out there. I think what’s going on out there is what you think is going on there. I think what you’re trying to ask me is that, one thing I was really thinking about when we were making the movie is how obviously there is going to be a length of time in the movie where he is following her and trying to make this proposal and that shouldn’t come across as creepy or weird. It was the innate goodness of the  character and also in the actor I think helps not put it in that direction. But that’s about the best answer I can give you to that.

M: The film itself has a very leisurely pace, it takes it’s time unfolding and doing what it does, is that an easy thing to do when you’re making a film? Or is there a temptation to move things along quickly?

R: It just depends on who the characters are and then who the characters are is also going to determine their performance and then films have to be cut together according to the temperature of the performance has so much to do with the film. I think if these characters had got together in a hurried pace, I don’t know if it’s very believable. But if you’re making something that’s supposed to be totally realistic and true, then you have to follow the performances where they take you and how fast they take you there.

M: Were you at all concerned about the pace from the viewers’ point of view, that they were going to get impatient with it?

R: Maybe so, I think that some people might get impatient with it to be fair, but I saw it with  a festival audience and I saw it with the public in India and I think people come into a movie and then those first 10-15 minutes something happens, they get the movie, they get the rhythms of the movie and also I think everything is so fast these days, I think people appreciate coming into movie theatre and just slowing down a little bit. Honestly I don’t know, I think your question is a better question for the viewers.

M: The film takes place in Mumbai, which is where you grew up and the city itself is a character in the film, was that part of what you had in mind when you were making the movie to introduce people to the city?

R: Yeah in a way because it’s a movie about people from two different strata of society in the same city, but when you’re shooting anything in Bombay it’s hard to keep the city out. It’s hard because it’s such an overwhelming city and there’s so much there. So even if you’re shooting it from, I mean I’ve done this only twice in Bombay but, even if you are shooting from a strictly…it’s a pretty character centred movie, the two movies I’ve made in Bombay, they’re pretty character driven…but the city always seeps in and most decisions, at least camerawise are about how to keep it out, but the city is a very powerful force, it’s such as overwhelming massive background so you’re not going to be able to keep it out completely and then not shoot. I mean the city shapes these characters in so many ways, so it’s only fair.

M: Is it a difficult place to shoot a film?

R: It is, it’s not an easy place to shoot a film.

M: What are the main obstacles or hurdles to get around when shooting around the city?

R: I mean everything when you have a city teeming with so many people. It’s not as organised as it is shooting in New York where you can block off the street. In Bombay you can do that, but then you have to release it and let the traffic pass also. It’s very difficult to shoot in Bombay.

M: You talk about the differences in culture and class and all that and one of the things that I noticed was the whole concept of a financial transactions, there’s a scene where early on in the film somebody gives somebody something in advance or said something and they say, ‘Do you think that I’m stupid because why would I give you that in advance before you’ve paid me?’, and then he goes on and gives the photo in advance and I get the feeling that’s kind of them rebelling against that kind of mentality? Is that something you are trying to address in the film?

R: Well you know, it’s a good catch actually you know, I think not just in India but I mean everywhere the middle classes are very stringent about you know, it’s hard to be a middle class person because you always striving to be rich. You know, you’re not, and neither are you poor. I think anyway the rich of course can be more generous because they’re rich and the poor can be more generous because you know, they don’t have anything, and the only thing they have is you know generosity and to help each other out. So you know you go into Bombay and there’s no such thing as paying in advance and there’s a lot of people loaning each other thing because that’s how you get through you know that’s how communities get through, pay me later, pay me later. But in the middle classes that’s different. I mean it’s a nuance, thanks for noticing it. That’s what these characters would do yeah. it’s a good observation. I would imagine it happens everywhere in the world in different ways, it does happen more so in the East, definitely.

M: The other thing I would like to touch on is just the cinematography in the film, it’s a beautiful looking film and, how did you go about getting that look and getting those scenes to look to be composed and to look the way they are?

T: Ben Kutchins and I had been trying to work together for the last 3 or 4 films, and never be able to match, but finally i got a chance to work with him and he’s a great guy, and really good DOP. And when we started talking about this we were always very conscious about how speaking parts there are in the movie. There’s a lot of speaking parts in the movie, there’s  a lot of gag on his side and her side and we always talk about how we got to shoot and yet its a movie about two people you know.  So we just wanted to shoot it with just keeping the focus on these two people. The focus of the scene you know, these two characters emotional needs and those things. So we just started coming up with walking right into a room and the camera go around her head, as well you know, there was eight or ten people in the room that are all out of focus, they have all the dialogue as they have with her. So I was very happy to do those kinds of things that are daring on the day but they are the best thing that you could have done. Often get muddled and lost so you know, voices… too many characters people want to see the person what the scene is about, they don’t want. They hear the banter people processing with their eyes but you know, they don’t want to hear (fades out briefly) and yet to be realistic very warmly  the houses very cold and the glasses are very cold even though she’s you know, kind of…and his kind of things very beautiful and yet you know, we didn’t want to make it like “poverty porn” so we stayed away from that. I think these kind of principals helped us in the movie.

M: Now I think our connection is getting a little wobbly so I’ll ask you one last one, just kind of what do you want people to come away from, from watching the film, or come away with?

T: Well you know, I always have one answer to that question, I think that’s a really good question. They should take the movie home with them. People should take the characters home with them, they shouldn’t, the movie shouldn’t end in the movie theatre. So people see that last scene and take the characters home with  them, that last scene in the theatre. I mean that would make me happy you know. Life doesn’t have any tidy endings. So you don’t get this chance often you know in this business as you know, you speak to a lot of people and that, but so many times the studio, somebody else is telling you. (fades away). No, you owe people a tidy ending you know, people who spend money on the movie, want to watch it ….but then you know when I got this chance with this movie, to not have that, to just make, to just so that I feel people will walk out of the theatre and  I saw that in India and I saw that in the States and in New York last one, and people were walking out, you know talking about what happens to those characters. And you want people to take the movie home with them. These days you watch these little things on you know, Instagram or whatever or on YouTube and everything is telling you what it is and everything’s telling you how it ends and how people end up and then if you know how they end up then what happens then, then you’re not going to take the movie home with you. It’s not like you can set yourself up for a trilogy, but I think you can just have people take it home with them, you know, That’s the only goal. Pretty humble you know.

Click here for tickets to see Photograph at the NZIFF (Friday, July 26 at Westgate)