Why Ritesh Batra Wants to Remain the Bollywood Outsider Forever


Why Ritesh Batra Wants to Remain the Bollywood Outsider Forever

Illustration: Akshita Monga

In a small, but standout scene in The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra’s breakout hit, a boisterous middle-class accountant in a crowded Mumbai local, skillfully chops vegetables to hasten the process of cooking dinner. Batra achieves a whole lot with very little: That scene locates you in a place where space is merely a state of mind. He reproduces the essence of Mumbai, a city where almost everyone is playing catch up, a city where every second is employed in the struggle to get by. After all, Batra holds a reputation for being a minimalist with a keen eye for detail.

Even Photograph is exalted by its lived-in details, whether it is translating the economic depravity and suffocation of five grown men sharing a one-room chawl, or the presence of Campa Cola, a soft drink brand that went out of production a few years ago. In the last seven years, Batra – like Sriram Raghavan – has earned the reputation of being a director whose detailed canvases can rationalise every component of his films.

Perhaps, that’s why it comes as a bit of a shock when Batra – a self-confessed fan of film posters – claims that there are no hidden clues in the two English titles of his Hindi films, which also play a significant character in the plot. When I prod further, he laughs the pattern off as a non-connection, “I think people place too much importance on titles. In any film,” he tells me. “Everytime I write something, the document is on my desktop as ‘Untitled’. It’s when I send it out to somebody to read and tell me what they think that I have to come up with something bright at that moment. And then that’s usually the title of the movie, you know?” It’s not the origin story I expected. But then Batra reveals that the ambivalence stems partly from his eagerness to make a “movie that is more than the title”. Unlike what can be said about a majority of Bollywood offerings.

Photograph feels like the culmination of Ritesh Batra’s insistence on making Hindi films far removed from the stilted imagination and limitations of Bollywood.

Batra’s insistence on straying away from the traditional Bollywood narrative is also a pattern – unlike several Hindi films, Batra chooses to build entire films around one scene. In Lunchbox, it was Sajjan and Ila’s hapless meeting in that quaint Matunga cafe and in Photograph, he tells me, it was the film’s flashback ending – a moment that in any other star-crossed romance, would be the beginning. “For me, the entire film revolved around the last scene because I was always trying to earn it and how we could get there while keeping every moment that preceded it, believable.” The scene that Batra refers to, is ambitious in its design, at the risk of appearing underwhelming. Just like the rest of Photograph.

Yet more than anything, Photograph feels like the culmination of Batra’s insistence on making Hindi films far removed from the stilted imagination and limitations of Bollywood. It’s tempting to interpret his two Hindi films as an act of defiance that cements his outsider status.

Photograph’s premise, for instance, that of a rich girl falling in love with a poor guy, is an oft-abused Hindi star-crossed romance template and yet Batra turns that trope on its head by refusing to define their relationship. “For Photograph, I was inspired by the Hindi films in the 80s and 90s where a poor guy and a rich girl would fall in love. He would always be a motor mechanic and it was always the rich girl who was shrewd and had a bad temper,” Batra states. But when he watched those films while growing up, he wasn’t entirely convinced about whether it was actually possible to bridge that distance between two people who come from contrasting corners of life, “I didn’t believe that two people like that could ever be drawn toward each other, unless they were a particular kind of people. So with Photograph, I was more invested in finding out the motivations and hesitations of these two characters.”

Ritesh Batra

Ritesh Batra comes across as someone who is almost over-protective of his voice.

The result is a songless film that spends two hours just observing its leads find themselves while finding their way toward each other without badgering their story toward a destination. It’s certainly not a film that Bollywood would ever make. Photograph’s languid pace comes off as both a gamble and a weakness: It’s risky of a director, concerned with crafting Hindi films that travel globally to not play by the rules, but it’s also a move that alienates a chunk of the Hindi-speaking audience, reared on spoon-fed Bollywood narratives. Batra however, remains unfazed about these external factors. “The pace of the film should always be defined by its characters and how long they would believably take to want something.”

It’s not surprising then, that Batra gives across the impression of being someone who is almost over-protective of his voice. It’s also the first thing he knew he had to take away from his female protagonist in Photograph, “Miloni couldn’t have a lot of dialogues because she is the kind of person who doesn’t have a lot of chance in her life to make decisions. That excited me – taking away her lines and still making it work.” It’s an inventive move that pays off: Miloni (played by Sanya Malhotra) single-handedly offers Photograph its tender coming-of-age story which is underlined by a sharp critique of the diminished agency of Indian women.

In fact, much of Batra’s conviction in his storytelling stems from the fact that he is one of the rare Hindi film directors who seems to have cracked the code of making Hindi films without being dependent on Bollywood studios. For instance, the director spent close to a year to put together Photograph through global pre-sales, selling it in every territory of the world to different distributors before actually shooting it – the India and US rights were bought by Amazon Studios.

It’s a remarkable demonstration of a director maximising his reputation to buy his stories the kind of independence that even mainstream filmmakers crave for. It’s precisely why, irrespective of how divisive the reactions to Photograph have been, it’s almost impossible to fault Photograph for not being imaginative – a trait that is anyway, seasonal in mainstream Hindi cinema.