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“We Don’t Do Pickups, It’s Not Fair to the Actors”: Ritesh Batra on Photograph

Sanya Malhotra and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Photograph

Two strangers from different classes meet in Mumbai by accident in Photograph, an Amazon Studios release opening theatrically May 17. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) scrapes along by selling snapshots of tourists. The middle-class Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) has her life planned for her: a course in accounting, followed by an arranged marriage. Through a familiar screwball-comedy twist, she agrees to pose as Rafi’s betrothed when his grandmother Didi (Farrukh Jaffar) visits.

Photograph is not strictly a comedy, but more a study of two deeply unhappy people taking tentative steps out of isolation. Writer and director Ritesh Batra explores his characters with an empathy and insight unusual for mainstream Indian movies. While clear-eyed about social and economic issues, about class differences and cultural expectations, Rafi and Miloni share an optimism that is beguiling. 

Batra’s debut feature The Lunchbox (2013) premiered at Cannes. His follow-up, Our Souls at Night (2017), starred Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in a love story full of narrative quirks. Based on a novel by Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2017) starred Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling in a drama that unfolds largely in the past.

Batra spoke with Filmmaker in New York.

Filmmaker: Like The Lunchbox, you wrote the script for Photograph. Can you describe your writing process?

Batra: Film is a funny business. You spend your twenties trying to get a movie made, and then you get to make one in your thirties. I made Lunchbox when I was 33. I didn’t expect it to be a success, or to give me a career. I thought I would have start over to get another movie made after that. It takes some time to learn about yourself, especially if you’re coming from outside the business. I learned a lot in the past couple of years, and one of the things I learned is that I really enjoy directing my own writing. That’s what I want to do. In fact I’ve stopped reading scripts.

As far as how I write, and how this movie was written, what I have noticed about myself is that the scene that I write first is most often what the movie’s really about. In this case, it was the last scene of the movie. [Rafi and Miloni sit in the lobby of a movie theater, Rafi describing the plot of a film neither has seen but both can predict.] Then my whole writing process was how to get to that last scene in a way that’s interesting and satisfying. I wouldn’t say I worked backwards, because I didn’t know where that scene was going to be, whether in the middle or the end. The more I wrote, the more it made sense that it’s at the end.

This story was interesting to me because I know this world and I know that this kind of relationship is pretty much a fairy tale. The interaction between these two characters in real life would usually be, “How much does that cost?” and “Here’s the change.” And that’s where it would end. So, in the writing, how could I find characters that could sustain the narrative of a feature film? What is it about these people that makes them curious about each other, makes them want to escape their own worlds? That’s something you only find out about through the writing process. I’m trying to balance these elements, and also trying to come up with something that feels plausible even knowing that it never happens in real life. Also, how do you keep the tone? For directors and writers, one of the hardest jobs is to keep the tone consistent. I knew there’s a ghost coming in the middle of the movie—how do I sell that tonally?

Filmmaker: Your characters are unhappy in the worlds they live in and don’t see a way out. And yet they’re surrounded by people who keep offering them answers.

Batra: I felt in The Lunchbox, and even when I was working on Our Souls at Night, that loneliness is something so abstract that you can’t do anything with it. You can’t really shoot loneliness, or act loneliness. But longing is something that is more palpable. You can actually talk to an actor about longing, they can bring it to the performance. It can be shot. Longing, I think, is a better word than loneliness, and it’s also active.

Filmmaker: Miloni is unusual in that for the most part she doesn’t express herself. She allows others to define her. How did you explain that to Sanya Malhotra?

Batra: Her character doesn’t have a voice; everyone’s speaking for her. We needed someone to perform the part who could do it with very little dialogue, because to give her a lot of lines would not make a lot of sense. When we got to the casting process, one good way to audition was to do a scene and then take away the lines. So with Sanya, it worked taking away her lines, because she was still able to do something without them. Once you read the lines and perform them, they’re always in the air. Oftentimes, I found in multiple takes you can take away more and more lines. But a part like this, it becomes all the more important that somebody’s able to do something, perform, without relying on lines. She always did something interesting.

Nawazz I had worked with before on Lunchbox. There’s an innate goodness in him. Like Rafi, he’s also from a small village. Nawazz spent 14 years in Bombay trying to break into the acting profession. He worked as a security guard, he shared a room like Rafi does. So in many ways he is the character, he’s playing himself.

Filmmaker: How do you work with the actors? Do you have time to rehearse?

Batra: Rehearsing makes it easier during the shoot, if the actors have the time. Oftentimes they don’t, because they’re so busy. If we can’t before, we’ll rehearse on set. I had like a week with Nawazz and Sanya.

Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?

Batra: I think 32 or 35 days, straight through. A fair bit of night shooting. 

Filmmaker: It’s almost all on location?

Batra: Miloni’s house was a set, and Rafi’s hovel, the interior was a set. The rest were locations.

Filmmaker: When you get to a location, how do your plans change? What happens with what you’ve rehearsed?

Batra: Sometimes things change, but not in a big way. Here’s a simple example. When Rafi and his friend are walking and talking, we knew that we wanted the camera to just pull them along down the street. When we rehearsed in a room, they are of course just walking around and around the room. When we get to the actual location, we find that the street is not as long as we thought. We don’t have enough extras, we don’t have the backgrounds, we don’t have permissions, or something goes wrong. Then you just have to incorporate pauses—something as small as the actor just stopping in his tracks and looking at the other, so that they don’t have to walk quite as far. Those things are not hard. 

Filmmaker: What’s it like shooting in crowds?

Batra: There’s no science to it, just a lot of patience. Shooting in Bombay in general requires a lot of patience. You have to embrace the chaos. You also have to be willing to accept that maybe you won’t get want you want, and you may have to come back another day. 

Five years ago, when we were shooting Lunchbox, it was very different. The world has become much harder in the last five years. All of a sudden it’s much more crowded with the migration from the country to the big cities. That’s also what the movie’s about a little bit. Physically, this shoot was much more taxing for everybody. It was much hotter. The world has become a hotter place in just five years. With Lunchbox we were able to move, to schedule two or three locations a day. But for this movie it was impossible to go from one part of the city to another part of the city without losing a day. So we ended up shooting in one place. 

The cab scenes, almost all of them, we had to eventually concede and shoot them in the studio. We tried shooting them on location, and we failed twice. Because it’s so crowded, the taxi has to stop and people start gawking. We lost a day and a half, two days of shooting. In the end we had to blue screen them. There’s just one taxi scene where we actually ended up shooting on location, when they meet the driver who’s from a village near Rafi’s.

Filmmaker: Miloni meets Rafi at the Gateway of India, a huge monument overflowing with tourists. You use a long lens to suggest a connection between them, to separate them from bystanders.

Batra: We were trying to get that scene in two shots. It was difficult because there were so many people there, and things would go wrong between gawkers and onlookers. There’s a camera move that goes around her head, he comes into focus, then there’s a reverse. We covered that scene in two shots and cut it together. Tough day.

Filmmaker: You have two scenes that take place on a crowded ferry. It looks like seven or eight separate set-ups.

Batra: Both the ferry scenes are a day’s work. That was a tough day. The hard thing was getting the timing right, plus trying to shoot it in a way that’s interesting. I was walking around the ferry, standing in various places, trying to find a shot where Miloni feels hemmed in. We got that shot through the bars of a gate, so she’s framed behind them. That was an interesting find.

Filmmaker: How did you work with cinematographer Ben Kutchins?

Batra: Ben and I have a great collaboration. We talked a lot about finding a shot that tells the story of the whole scene. When we felt good about the performances, we would cover the scene a little bit if we needed to, but most often we would move on. When we were shooting Miloni, we didn’t talk about covering scenes as much as having the camera represent what she’s feeling, what she’s going through—show her state of mind through the camera, because she’s not saying a lot. We were always pushing in on her, or wrapping around her head, or shooting her feet. It was always about her, shooting subjectively from her perspective. Keep focused on her, keep the movie less crowded. A movie like this can get so crowded. For an audience it can be hard to follow, because there are so many speaking parts who aren’t the main characters. You have to shoot having the other people there, but not really there. So Miloni’s family is very present in her scenes, but still out of focus. We had to devise shots where her parents or relatives are talking, but shooting her. Keeping the others out of focus and the presence on her. In Rafi’s case too, we did quite a bit of that. When everybody else is talking, the camera’s on him. 

It was a very challenging to try to devise a visual style. For example, Miloni’s family is wealthy, or wealthier than Rafi. But to tell her story, we’re doing things to make her world seem colder, blander, more ascetic. We made her house less attractive than Rafi’s hovel, which is warm and welcoming, with these touches like mirrors, a hatch for a door. It’s a more interesting space. That’s one of the reasons why we made Miloni’s house a set, because we knew that we needed to devise shots that would explain her and her family. That’s easy to do on a set. On an actual location it’s very hard to devise a shot—and hope that you can get it too, because there are so many factors that can go wrong.

Filmmaker: What you choose to include, and exclude, from the frame, how close to or far from the characters you are, that’s where your visual sensibility comes through.

Batra: That scene when they are in the park, where Rafi brings Miloni her photograph, it made a lot of sense to keep the camera far away from them. It’s essentially two shots that we are cutting between, and just a wide at the end when she’s left alone. There’s a lot of foreground, brush, trees behind them. We had skipped over some information, the audience is catching up with us, and if the camera’s in too close at that point, it would not allow the audience to process where we are in the story. Just watching them from afar, and seeing them in every shot together, sitting together, that’s important so the audience can understand the time and space. Sometimes you want to see all the characters in one shot. If you start cutting between them, the audience can lose track of the movie.

Filmmaker: You shoot scenes straight through, with a single camera? 

Batra: Always shoot that way, even on Lunchbox. We don’t do pickups, it’s not fair to the actors. 

Filmmaker: There’s a scene where Rafi and his friend walk through a market at night. It has an almost documentary feel.

Batra: That’s not a set, it’s an actual slum. We took over two streets for the night. We had walking and talking shots, a scene with a shopkeeper. A lot of practical lighting.

Filmmaker: You also set scenes before the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the target of terrorists in 2008.

Batra: I was in Mumbai then. Everybody, even those far away, had family and friends in the city. We were calling around and checking in to make sure, because anybody can end up anywhere, you know? When I was shooting, I didn’t really think about the attack, I was so focused on these characters and their stories. The thing is, for someone who’s grown up there, that hotel has so much more to it. In 2017, while I was prepping Photograph, the hotel recreated the meal it served 70 years earlier for India’s Independence Day. I took my parents to it.

Filmmaker: You mentioned a sense of longing earlier. The characters in your film are also trying to make a connection in a society where isolation has become more prevalent.

Batra: Our digital society has become so overwhelming. Monday, Tuesday, every day of the week so much stuff is coming from everywhere—so much news, so many podcasts, content, things we have to get to, things we have to do. For people going to movies, time can slow down a little bit. That’s a good thing.

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