Rising Indian Director Ritesh Batra On Working With Both Amazon and Netflix
Following his 2017 outing for Netflix, 'Our Souls at Night', starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, the director's latest title 'Photograph' from Amazon Studios, releases theatrically in the U.S. on May 17.
Ritesh Batra is reflective of a new voice in Indian cinema which is finding an international connect thanks to a growing filmography which transcends borders. Along the way, the 39-year-old writer-director has also become the rare Indian talent to make films for both Amazon and Netflix.
Batra broke out with his 2013 debut feature The Lunchbox, a romantic tale set against the backdrop of Mumbai's famous lunchbox delivery system. Starring Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, the title bowed at Cannes to rave reviews resulting in a North American distribution deal via Sony Pictures Classics. Despite heavy buzz, in a controversial decision, The Lunchbox was not selected as India's Oscar entry but it did pick up a BAFTA nomination.
In stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of his hometown Mumbai, for his next project, Batra moved to a quiet English setting with 2017's The Sense of an Ending, starring Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling and Michelle Dockery, based on Julian Barnes' book of the same name, coproduced by BBC Films.
Batra continued to expand his horizons with his next project, 2017's "coming-of-age" story, Our Souls At Night, set in small town U.S.A., which reunited Robert Redford and Jane Fonda almost four decades after the duo were last seen onscreen in 1979's The Electric Horseman. Produced by Netflix, the title marked Batra's foray into the streaming world which has continued with his latest project Photograph, for Amazon Studios, which bowed at Sundance followed by Berlin.
Photograph brings Batra, who is now based in New York, back to Mumbai and captures a romantic tale between two completely opposite characters from India's social classes: small town migrant street photographer Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and shy, college student Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) who comes from a middle class family.
"A movie like this has to be belieavable," says Batra adding that "in reality, this kind of a relationship is transactional as to how much both characters can change. It really was about finding two characters who spend some time together and how do we make them plausible." He points that a lot of the movie "is also about longing."
As for how he would like U.S. audiences to respond to Photograph when it releases theatrically May 17, Batra says, "I think movies should not end in cinemas, people should take them home with them. People should think about the movie after its over. So I hope people can take this film home with them."
With two back to back films for video giants Netflix and Amazon, Batra says that he "enjoyed working with both of them. I don't know if you can compare their styles. I enjoyed the creative freedom I got from both of them."
However, Batra is also aware about the raging debate over the theatrical experience versus streaming. While Amazon is giving a theatrical push to Photograph, Our Souls At Night only bowed on Netflix. "I know a lot of people who go to the cinema and a lot who don't go because its tough, it costs a lot of money for tickets, popcorn etc. Of course, there is a communal aspect of it [the theatrical experience] as well. I also understand how digital works for most people," he said.
He adds: "I really don't know what I can contribute to this conversation except that with all the streaming companies that are coming, a lot of interesting content is being produced and directors are getting a lot of artistic freedom."
Photograph, for which Batra also wrote the screenplay, gave him the opportunity to film in his hometown Mumbai after The Lunchbox, an experience he recollects as being "a lot of fun. I had a lot of technicians who worked on The Lunchbox. I also enjoyed directing my own writing after a while." Considering that The Lunchbox could have achieved wider exposure had it been nominated for the Oscars, Batra says, "I am not saying it was a missed opportunity. We in India are lacking in institutions that have leadership and hence we are not able to leverage our content on the global stage."
Taking a wider view, he points at how the world has become even more global thanks to streamers bringing a lot of international content to India "and vice versa. So now, to expand your market has become much more important than before." He believes that a lot of Indian filmmakers "can make an impact on the global stage. We need more thoughtful leadership in institutions that can make a difference for them. I feel the situation on the ground in India hasn't changed much."
Given that the Indian industry is dominated by formulaic mainstream fare, independent and arthouse films face an uphill battle in garnering distribution, a situation which Batra says "is tough. Even media coverage is not free and add to that, we have prints and advertising. A theatrical release is not feasible."
He also points to how Hollywood tentpoles such as the Avengers franchise and The Jungle Book "are doing well [indicating that] audiences want this kind of content. If local box office [with domestic films] doesn't pick up, it again comes down to having strong institutions so that we can create quality content. Its actually a very complex question to which there is no easy answer."
As for his upcoming projects, without giving details, Batra says he is working on "something that I wrote. I am working on both a movie and an episodic series. And they will be based both in India and overseas."