Mumbai-born director Ritesh Batra’s notable debut film, “The Lunchbox” starring Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, was embraced by global audiences, making it the third highest grossing foreign film in America in 2014. The wistful romantic comedy displayed Batra’s empathy for the emotions of a lonely middle-aged Indian widower, and proved to be an ideal precursor to Batra’s first English-language feature film, “The Sense of an Ending,” which conveys all the “inwardness, awkwardness and social anxiety” that constrict famously reserved Englishmen and British mores like “a very tightly wrapped cummerbund.”
Batra’s new film is an adaptation of Julian Barnes’ book of the same name which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. When BBC Films offered Batra the opportunity to direct the film, he says, “I jumped on it as it is just one of those books I’ve always carried with me.”
The film is about Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), a cautious, divorced man in his 60s, who tries to live in a cocoon. When the mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), leaves him £500 — the legacy unsettles Tony, pushing him out of his closed world, forcing him to get in touch with Veronica (their relationship had soured). The film is about Tony’s futile search for closure to his long-ago college relationship and attempt to correct past failures.
Batra, 37, who has been named by “Variety” as one of “10 Directors to Watch,” sat down for an interview with The Wire.
Your breakthrough project was “The Lunchbox” which you both wrote and directed. Given your proclivity for your own source material how did Julian Barnes compact novel, “The Sense of an Ending” strike a chord with you?
I like to write my own material, but I read the “The Sense of an Ending” in 2011 when it came out and was instantly attracted to it. The book is about missed opportunity and the protagonist Tony Webster’s search for closure. Sadly, closure is essentially something which evades us as human beings, but we still look for a sense of an ending or whatever you want to call it. The story forces every person to look into their past, think about the way they’ve done right or wrong by other people. We are all heroes of our own stories so we sometimes leave out things that make us look bad in recollecting the past. Ultimately, the past we choose to forget and the nostalgia we hold in our own lives are the reasons audiences will identify with Tony’s story.
I shared a room growing up with my grandfather for the first 18 years of my life and the last 18 of his in Mumbai. I saw his sort of loneliness and his regret and everything he went through in that stage in life. I got to see it in close quarters so I’d like to think I can bring something to a story like this.
In the book, Tony’s tragedy is that he avoids deep connections for fear of risking loss. Would you say your movie is more sunny than the book with the emotionally fraught excavation of Tony’s past ultimately inspiring him to try for a better future with his pregnant daughter and ex-wife?
When Nick and I were collaborating on the script we definitely grappled with how do we tell the story about a novel as a movie. Where do we take advantage of poetic license? Movies have to be told through relationships, literature and books don’t necessarily have to be told through relationships. The book is basically one man’s interior monologue with an audience. But in the movie we fleshed out Tony’s relationship with his ex-wife. We also created a relationship with Tony’s daughter to frame the story.
I also met the author Julian Barnes who reassured me about the adaptation process. The last thing he said was “go ahead and betray me.” I really hope we populated Julian’s universe in a way that’s true to the movie and the book as well. He’s just a wonderfully generous man and I hope the movie and the book can exist together as complements.
“Lunchbox” was a thoroughly Indian story with plenty of crossover emotional resonance. “The Sense of an Ending” is a very British film, conveying the social anxiety of an Englishman. Do you feel this very British film will resonate as well with global audiences?
I don’t know. I hope it does. The movie had to be true to the material, the adaptation deals with an Englishman of a certain age, in a certain time who has a very traditional reserve, inwardness, social anxiety and difficulty with expressing his emotional side. Will the movie have a lot of success? I really hope so — a lot of people worked very hard on it. It is not an easy book to adapt.
You have made movies on three different continents: “Lunchbox” in India, “Sense of an Ending” in Britain and “Our Souls at Night” in Colorado. How is it different, shooting with an Indian, British or American crew?
The whole machinery of making a movie is surprisingly similar in India, Britain and Hollywood even if the budgets are different.
I always try and work with the same music composer (Max Richter) and film editor (John Lyons). I would love to always work with the same people on every movie but geography doesn’t support that often. John and I spend a lot of time together in the editing room, talking through the story and getting its rhythm right. It’s a very close collaboration and there’s a lot of shorthand involved. Movies, in many ways, are crafted on the editing table.
In “Sense of an Ending” the real drama takes place in flashbacks about a half-century earlier and deftly moves between two moments in time, so we needed a large crew to recreate Britain of the 1960s.
Did you find collaborating with British and American actors very different from your experience directing Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur on “The Lunchbox.”
Working with Robert Redford isn’t very different than working with Charlotte Rampling. But different actors work differently. When I was working on “The Lunchbox,” Nimrat Kaur enjoyed rehearsals. Irrfan and Charlotte are very similar actors, they bring something from deep within themselves and you have to recognize that and preserve that on set for them. And they’re always trying to dig deeper.
Are you feeling the pressure after being named one of “10 Directors to Watch” by Variety, along with Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight.”
I take it in my stride. What else can you do? It’s a real privilege to be doing this. Telling brilliant actors what you want and having front row seats to seeing them slip into characters and do their thing.
You enrolled at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts film program but dropped out. Do you think it’s important to have formal training in film-making especially if you want to be a director?
I think everyone learns differently. The people who have been to film school are still learning on each film they make. I would never encourage anyone to drop out. I spoke recently in a film class at New York University and if I could go back in time I probably wouldn’t have dropped out from school. At the same time, if I hadn’t dropped out I wouldn’t have made my movie “The Lunchbox.” Learning is such an individual, personal thing. I thought I would go back to NYU if it didn’t work out but never got a chance to go back.