Ritesh Batra: I bring a foreign eye to my Hollywood films

Ritesh Batra is working with some of Hollywood's biggest stars
Ritesh Batra is working with some of Hollywood's biggest stars

Ritesh Batra is following up the success of his 2013 hit The Lunchbox with back-to-back, highly-anticipated international projects – The Sense of an Ending and Our Souls at Night – but for the director it is more about working with great actors than “going Hollywood”.

He has begun shooting for his second international film Our Souls at Night, which is backed by Netflix and stars Hollywood veterans Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, in Colorado, in the US. Based on Kent Haruf’s novel, the story revolves around two elderly neighbours who seek companionship after the death of their respective spouses.

“I don’t think of it like that (going international). It is just that one thing leads to another. I never thought about it, like I am doing stuff in Hollywood or somewhere else. You do it because you love your job and get a chance to work with these great actors,” Batra said.

The director did not have much time between the two projects as he got the offer for the movie while he was still shooting the adaptation of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novel.

“I was wrapping The Sense of an Ending in London when the producer reached out to me. I had a phone call with Robert [Redford]. I love the book and the script and I really wanted to work with Robert and Jane [Fonda]. It just happened very quickly. I was very happy to jump on board. It is an interesting time for me.”

Batra says it was hard to adapt The Sense of An Ending as he did not want to mess with the tone of the book. His latest film also demands a similar approach, he reveals. Both his films are book adaptations and star some of the biggest names in international cinema, be it Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling and Michelle Dockery or Redford and Fonda. A love for reading and writing helped Batra tackling these screen adaptations, he explains.

“There is no method to it but I have a discipline about writing and rewriting things, allowing them to grow. Being able to create things on the page helps me a lot. Sense is a delicate story, it deserves a good movie. Lunchbox was also like a book in my head.

“The medium of novels is complex but these stories have to be told in a very simple and gentle manner.”

Batra, whose Lunchbox was set in Mumbai, says he may not be familiar with the setting of these books but he brings something else to the stories.

“Mumbai was home. I knew the place inside out but yes, these places are very different. I felt the local thing had to come from other collaborators. I bring something else. These stories need a foreign eye.”

Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox
Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox

Interestingly, loneliness is a recurring theme in all three movies and Batra agrees that he tends to gravitate towards such stories naturally. “Lunchbox was more about urban loneliness – these two people are alone until they find each other in the movie. While in Sense, Jim’s character has chosen loneliness. He has become used to living on his own but yes, people are lonely everywhere…”

Batra says he first felt alone when he left his home to study in the US and he also experienced his grandfather’s loneliness while living with him when he was growing up.

“I seem to gravitate towards loneliness. The other aspect of it is that people identify certain kind of work with you and that tends to come your way but you don’t think too much about it.”

Batra is happy to see Indian actors working in international projects but feels the industry should also welcome foreign talent.

“Hopefully, it is a trend. But it would be great if we also welcomed people in our world. Foreign directors should come to India and make films for the Indian audience. This kind of exchange is important. We have such great actors.

“There is a strong tradition in the UK of foreign directors coming and making movies. I felt very welcome there and I am very comfortable making this movie in Colorado.”