“Making Movies as Timeless as They Can Be”: Director Ritesh Batra on Evoking Longing in Photograph

In an early scene in Photograph, Ritesh Batra’s return to his hometown Mumbai after his directorial debut The Lunchbox, Gateway of India photographer Rafi, played by Indian indie staple Nawazuddin Siddiqui, approaches shy Miloni, portrayed by relative newcomer Sanya Malhotra. 

Unassumingly, as is his demeanor toward all tourists at the metropolis’ most iconic landmark, he utters, “Years later when you will glimpse this photograph, madam, you will see the same sunlight on your face. In your hair, this very breeze. And in your ears, voices of these thousand passersby.” 

Rafi is alone among the union of photographers to make these practiced words sound philosophical, even urgent. And Miloni is distinguished among the multitude to bear a despondence that needs to hear them. They slow her down, break her reverie. As she turns, he pauses too. She agrees to be photographed. Before the click is ready though, she disappears into the crowd. So begins Rafi’s quest to find her, this woman, an image of forlorn magnetism, and he strummed by latent longing.

With Photograph, Batra has made a film about the unflappable iconicity of a timeless love. He strips away glamour and slows down performance to counter Mumbai’s rap as “maximum city.” He works with cinematographer Ben Kutchins to embrace restrictions of real locations on which the film’s sets are modeled. He reinserts lyrics from a classical 1960s song about the gratitude of a first glance, one that can stop earth and sky. 

These directions construct Photograph as a tone chorale about love as restraint and restraint as longing. In which the loudness of landmarks and the distances of socioeconomic difference—Rafi is a dark-skinned working class, Urdu-speaking Muslim migrant from a village; Sanya is a light-skinned middle class, Gujarati-speaking accounting topper from the city—become leavened.

Ritesh Batra, director of Photograph, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Photograph by Oksana Kanivets, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Ritesh Mehta, Moviemaker Magazine(MM): When did you start working on the script?

Ritesh Batra (RB): I wrote this script right after The Lunchbox (2013). I was tinkering with it for the last couple years. After we cast the movie I did a lot of rewrites for the actors. In the original script the [lead female] character had a physical disability, and then when I met Sanya, I thought, let’s make this internal, let’s make this come from inside her. So, I ended up changing a lot of scenes to make the character closer to her. She has a very interesting quality. She’s a very shy person in real life and that was great for the movie.

MM: This brings up an important question about killing your darlings. How were you able to let go of your original conception of the character having a disability? 

RB: The story is not really about disability. It’s about longing, longing for a different time, longing for a different life, longing for some kind of possibilities. I really wanted to make a movie about that, more than about overcoming something. The conflict [about the disability] would have been more on the nose, and not having that experience of a disabled person or not having spent that much time trying to understand it, I did not feel equipped.

MM: Are you comfortable with the rewriting process?

RB: Yes. Actors are always trying to get closer to the script, and if you know the actors well enough—I had worked with Nawaz before; Sanya too I got to know her, and Geetanjali, the lady who plays the maid—so I was able to rewrite those scenes to bring it closer to them. I don’t rewrite plot points. What I rewrite is how a person [is] behaving within a scene. When you cast actors, you realize what the temperature of the performances can be, which has a lot to do with tone. You have to keep the tone of the movie consistent. For me to be able to keep a firm hand on it, I feel I have to get the temperature of the performances of all the actors in the same kind of wheelhouse. So my rewriting has a lot to do with that.

MM: Did you do a temperature read between Nawaz and Sanya?

RB: We did do a cast and crew read, but not a temperature read. Just two or three days before the shoot, I get everybody in the room and get everybody excited. That’s the purpose of the read. We did do a lot of rehearsals.

MM: What’s the rehearsal process like?

RB: What we do is try to bring the scenes to life in a room, talk through them, beat by beat. We are blocking stuff as well. For this movie, for her house for example, we shot on a set. We kept it true to the real location we had modeled, in mind. We wanted the flexibility of sliding walls, but we kept the proportionality. We wanted the restrictions when we needed them. To shoot the scenes in the kitchen, it was cool to have the restrictions. To shoot in the bedroom, it was nice to be able to push in. We rehearsed in the real locations.

MM: That’s interesting. Is that common, rehearsing in real locations [but not shooting in them]?

RB: It felt like the right thing to do for this movie. It helped us find a lot of the scenes, like the ones where the friends are talking to each other at night. That was shot on a set but it was modeled on a real location that’s in Behrampada, a slum in Bandra East in Bombay. We were able to get in there, smuggle people in and rehearse. But shooting there with a hundred people is not possible. But being there, with the DP and the actors, we were like, we want it to be this space. This is the space our set is modeled on. Let’s rehearse here. That’s the way we could find shots that could embrace the restrictions of the space. Because how small the spaces are needs to be able to come out as well. 

MM: Both The Lunchbox and Photograph are quintessentially about Mumbai. They really evoke the city, its landmarks and their iconicity. However, it’s hard to pin down when Photograph is set.

RB: It is set in Bombay [Mumbai] in the present day. People ask me these questions about The Lunchbox too. When it is set? Over how long does it happen? For me, when a script works on the page and when a film works, the answers to those questions are really based on people’s experiences. The movie could’ve happened over two months [or] over six months. 

But that’s a good question about the time period in which Photograph is set. I try consciously to keep certain things out. I feel movies have a way of becoming timeless and they have to live beyond five years or 10 years, for people to pick them up again. It’s not the question of making them dated or not dated but making them as timeless as they can be.

MM: The location that makes Photograph the most iconic and also drives the story is the Gateway of India. Can you talk about the logistics to shoot there, since understandably, yours is one of the first films since the 2008 terrorist attacks to have used the Gateway as a backdrop. Do they still have photographers around the Gateway? How did you manage the crowds?

RB: Oh yes, the photographers have a union, a uniform, everything. Of course [shooting at the Gateway] is very challenging and there are no second chances. We had 32-34 production days. We got the Gateway for two mornings. [In terms of permission], they give you a certain square footage. The area behind the Gate that faces the sea, we got for three hours and were able to stretch it to four to five.

We were able to shoot two scenes in one day. It was tough. It involved a lot of extras. We always scheduled one scene that would be crazy to shoot and one scene that would be easier to shoot which we would have rehearsed a lot, like the conversations between two actors. Those [latter] scenes were very well rehearsed, so I knew I could get in there and get them in a couple of takes, in a single setup. 

First, we always shoot the types of scenes that involve crowds and logistics, like when [Rafi] is taking her picture, which was scheduled for one morning. We had specific camera moves that we needed. We had about 300 extras, and beyond that wall of extras, we had thousands of people watching. People are really respectful of those barriers in Bombay. They don’t cross it. But they are not respectful about noise. So obviously we had to ADR everything. You still have to keep your setups sparse. I don’t do a whole lot of setups anyway. But when you are shooting on the streets of Bombay, you have to be able to get things in a single setup. That becomes kind of the language of the movie. 

MM: The visual language of the movie, can you talk more about how you developed it?

RB: As the DP Ben Kutchins and I were breaking the script down, we found that for shooting Sanya’s side of the story, we had to find that one single shot that pushes into her or goes around her. Because there are so many characters, the movie needs to be focused. There were actually 52 speaking parts in the movie. We cast 52 actors. But if we had shot this movie in a way that covers these 52 actors, it would be a completely unfocused movie. So we had to find shots in which those people are there but at the same time it’s about her. So we are shooting over her head or we are swinging around, or we see them but they come in and out of focus. We had to really design shots [around] the people whom we really wanted to live on in the consciousness of the audience. 

MM: Going back to the tone of the film, your characters find themselves listening to popular older songs, such as “Noorie” and “Tumne Mujhe Dekha.” What was your interest in evoking the particular nostalgia of this film?

RB: In India, you often hear old songs everywhere. I don’t remember the movies the songs are from, but I remember the songs. People have a lot of nostalgia for them. There’s nothing like old Hindi music. That is how we experience nostalgia in India. And the fact is, they were just better, not because they are old. Or maybe they are better because they are old. I listen to them often. New York is home to me now. But when I feel nostalgic about India, I listen to these songs. 

MM: Did you pick the songs because they’re generally nostalgic or they’re nostalgic for these characters?

RB: Well, the “Noorie” song was an easy screenwriting tool because it’s the name he gives her, and because it’s a Muslim name and a rather nice name. But with “Tumne Mujhe Dekha,” he tries to look at her. She looks at him. The song alludes to people looking at each other. “When you saw me, that’s how I felt.” He’s starting to fall for her. But it’s mostly coming from [the idea] that these characters are not so expressive but this song is expressive. I feel like it increases the conflict in that scene.

MM: Your film has a very deliberate sense of pacing, from the film’s sense of slowness right down to the dialogue and how the characters talk in a very unhurried way, which is quite the opposite of how people in Bombay talk. Could you say a bit about that?

RB: The pace of the movie is constructed in the editing table. And it’s really dictated by, as you were saying, the pace of the performances. These characters are so within themselves. Sanya’s character never gets the chance to express herself. Somebody else in her family is usually talking for her. She has a lot of silences. We found what was really true for these characters in the rehearsal, and when we rehearsed on set, before the shot. These are not characters who would do something in a hurry. They are from such different worlds, so there is an awkwardness to their interactions. I always tell the actors to take their time. I remember during the shoot, we would take away some of Sanya’s dialogue because she’s a really good actor and she’d figured out a way to do things without saying them. So that’s kind of a rewrite. Rehearsals are one thing but when we get into the editing room, it’s really about honoring the performances. I took away a lot of scenes that were not fitting the tonality of the film. Every stage is a big rewrite.

MM: Finally, what is your advice for filmmakers who are wanting to make their first or second feature?

RB: Everyone’s journey is so individual but I would just say, the one thing I didn’t know: saying “no” is a very powerful thing. If you don’t feel something in your bones, say no. Even when it comes to film financing, a “no” is not a disappointing thing. The people who say no to you are the people who you don’t want to work with in the first place. If I could go back, I would not spend a lot of time ruminating over the no’s. I would also say a lot of no’s myself. “No” is a very positive thing. MM

Photograph opens in theaters May 17, 2019, courtesy of Amazon Studios. Featured image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.