We were fortunate enough to catch acclaimed director, Batra, in the midst of cutting his latest film: forthcoming Hollywood feature, Our Souls At Night, produced by Netflix, and starring such tremendous talent as Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. The story, based on the book by Kent Haruf, follows an elderly woman who strikes up a curious relationship with her fellow widower neighbour. Named one of Variety’s top 10 Directors to Watch, the soft-spoken Batra steadily rose to prominence after his debut Hindu film The LunchBox - shot in and around Mumbai - was screened at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, garnering several, impressive awards. This included Filmfare award for Best Debut Director, the Asian Film Award for Best Screenwriter, and the Critics Week Viewer’s Choice Award. Another accolade, in of itself, was being asked to direct the prestigious UK-based film, The Sense of An Ending: an adaptation of the Man Booker Prize winning novel by British author, Julian Barnes. “If I had to talk of an underlying parallel between all my works,” the well-travelled Batra told us, “it would be difficult to identify. They have all been so different. As a director, I’m also very much inside the work and not in the position of observer. But I suppose a recurring theme is loneliness. I need to feel close to a story, as I did with Barnes’ when I first read his novel in 2011. It was personal and the themes resonated emotionally. In India, I shared a room with my granddad growing up, and that’s had great impact on all my work.”
Indeed, capturing the plot of The Sense of An Ending required a certain sensitivity to the course of growing older, and how it deftly juxtaposes with a former experience of youth: in this case via one’s impetuous actions. The story centres on a seemingly composed older man, played by Jim Broadbent, who with the mysterious arrival of a diary begins a self-interrogative journey back into a shadowy past. But Batra adds his own humour. As he himself stated, “the tone of a film is important. From the costumes to the nuances of the acting and getting beautiful shots, one inconsistency can undermine the whole work.” His masterful blend of the poignant and light-hearted is really what carries Barnes’ suspense-filled story. It’s not hard then to understand why the director was asked to take his preservative talent all the way to the US. Batra - a person of South-Asian origin, who is rarely seen behind the scenes – has an extraordinary ability to perceive. From tapping into the underrepresented canon of the more mature public’s experiences, to conjuring a narrative from the intimate and everyday – The Lunchbox revolves around the erroneous delivery of a lunchbox to the desk of a man who isn’t the sender’s husband – this is how the director grips us. Thus, Batra epitomises the art of good storytelling as well as a high-profile, aspirational career. His traversing across different continents reflects his ability to cut across varied literary mediums.
You very competently translated an award-winning fiction novel to the screen. The plots of great stories are notoriously difficult to capture; what parts did you take particular time to innovate?
It was challenging to get the back and forth between past and present right: how much one might remember and how much they won’t at that particular moment. We had to find the right moments for Tony’s story in the present to stretch back into the past too, and while keeping the story’s momentum – that’s critical to keep watchers engaged. Both the timelines were shot several weeks apart. I spent time on those sets honing in on journeys that would bring you back to the present smoothly. Max Richter also contributed an unconventional yet dream-like score that complemented these crucial transitions.
What was the proudest outcome of The Sense of an Ending for You?
Working with wonderful actors who provided a cross-section of experience. There were younger and older actors, and such a range of ability. It was also great to work with screen-writer, Nick Payne, and really navigate the politics of making a movie together. The process can be very clinical at times, but negotiating that can give you such a feeling, poetic product.
Celebrities such as Riz Ahmed are speaking out about Asian representation; I noticed too that Nick Mohammed, one of my favourite comedians, was cast in the role of the postman in The Sense of An Ending. Do you think that more Asian people in roles of respect organically extends to better representation?
I’m not sure. I’m always looking for an excuse to write with Riz because a chance to write our stories really matters. I’ve had the opportunity of being able to travel from Bombay to London and New York, and from my personal experience, I have never met another person of colour who’s a filmmaker in the UK. The US is a little different. At the end of the day, if ethnic minorities aren’t being represented in the conference rooms that are deciding to cover stories than you’ll continue to have just conventional perspectives: even conventional expectations. A filmmaker friend of mine was at an event recently, and the indication was; how did you get in here? There is certainly still progress to be made. There isn’t enough diversity when it comes to people in positions of power.
Who were some of your favourite film inspirations growing up?
They were diverse. My grandad and I watched many films together: of course Satyajit Ray, and the work of Bergman. I loved to read too. Favourite writers were Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julian Barnes.
You mentioned tone: what else is an important element in making good cinema?
Having all the actors in your hands. They are the eye of the movie for the viewer.
Do you believe in the concept of show and don’t tell, and if so do you have a tip for budding filmmakers?
I do agree, but equally if words are going to help than why wouldn’t you use them? Woody Allen’s films do that a lot as words do have their own power. Separately, my advice is to learn how to listen to your instincts in the midst of all the noise and opinion. That’s when you get something great.
Finally, do plan to write more of your own material?
I find it easier to direct what I write, and hopefully in the future I’ll have more time and space for that.