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This article was first published 7 years ago  » Movies » Lunchbox director: From Irrfan to Broadbent to Redford

Lunchbox director: From Irrfan to Broadbent to Redford

By Aseem Chhabra
March 15, 2017 10:08 IST
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'One of the director's primary jobs is to make sure that all the actors perform as if they are in the same movie, playing in the same band -- one is not acting in a different band than the other.'
The Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra has two films coming up this year.

IMAGE: Charlotte Rampling and Jim Broadbent in The Sense Of An Ending.

In 2013, Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox played at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the Grand Golden Rail award.

Following its successful run at various other film festivals, The Lunchbox became a global box office phenomenon earning according to one estimate $15 million worldwide -- a large sum for the small film.

Batra is now ready with his second feature -- a very British film called The Sense of an Ending, based on Julian Barnes' 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning novel.

The book and the film focus on a middle aged divorced man Tony Webster (played with great emotional depth by the British actor Jim Broadbent, who won a supporting actor Oscar for Iris), who receives a letter which sets into motion his memories of school days and one very wrong act on his part.

In a supporting role, Charlotte Rampling plays Veronica Ford who briefly dated Webster when they were young.

Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island) plays Sarah Ford, the young Veronica's mother.

The Sense of an Ending is a beautiful, moving, film about memories and acts of youth and how they shape people's lives.

The film opened in New York and Los Angeles on March 10 and will play in many more American cities on March 17. It opens in India on March 24.

Batra has another film scheduled to be released later this year, Our Souls at Night, staring Hollywood stars Jane Fonda, Robert Redford and Belgian actor Mattias Schoenaerts (Bullhead and A Bigger Splash).

Aseem Chhabra spoke to Batra, who was in New York promoting The Sense of an Ending, and talked about taking a much respected book and making it into a stand-alone film.

Ritesh, I understand that when a project like The Sense of an Ending comes to a director, he would not say no. But what really attracted you to this film -- was it the book or had the casting been done when you came on board?

I had read the book in 2011, before I made The Lunchbox.

When The Lunchbox became successful, I looked into whether this book was available to adapt, but I heard that somebody was already adapting it and BBC had it under development. So I forgot about it because I tend to want to do my own writing.

But then a year or two after that, it came to me as an offer to direct. And there was already a script. Nick Payne had written a lovely first draft. It wasn't what I would have done with it, but it was very ingenious.

I came to the project for the love of the book and the opportunity to work with Nick. He is a fabulous writer and I had never worked with one before.

I also realised that he would become a wonderful collaborator. I felt the script should be closer to the book and he agreed with me on that.

We did a couple of drafts, we would sit around and talk about it for hours, reading aloud to each other. That was a useful process.

A few months later, we sent the script to Jim Broadbent and he came on board.

Then Charlotte Rampling came on board. But it took us many months to cast the young people.

IMAGE: Irrfan in The Lunchbox.

That's interesting because you wrote The Lunchbox entirely yourself.

Yes, I wrote and directed it.

The Lunchbox opened exactly three years ago in the US. So immediately after The Lunchbox and the Oscar-related controversy, did you immerse yourself in another film -- I remember you were staying in New York for one summer writing something -- or did it take you a while to breathe and figure out what you wanted to do next?

I am always writing and I did start doing that after The Lunchbox. There was a story set in Bombay that I would love to make at some point. I was reading a lot of things.

I was planning to adapt a great Indian novel. I cannot name it since it is not a property that I own. I was being very productive, writing wise.

I was never in a hurry to make a movie. I know often in India and other parts of the world, directors will make one movie a year. But I think most people make a movie, every three, four years. I am in no hurry.

After I finished The Sense of an Ending, I got a call from Robert Redford's office. He had loved The Lunchbox and wanted me to read the book Our Souls at Night and the script based on it.

There was enough time for me to do a re-write of the script, so I jumped at it and that should be coming out later this year.

Sometimes it's not about the business as much as it is about trying something that resonates with you, and it comes together very quickly. Sometimes it takes a longer time.

The goal is not to keep making movies, it should be to tell a good story.

It is interesting that you will have two films this year. The only recent example I know of is Pablo Larrain, who had two films open last year, Neruda and Jackie. That's not very common for directors.

Yeah, it was a coincidence.

IMAGE: Director Ritesh Batra, Michelle Dockery, Jim Boardbent, Harriet Walter and Dr Amanda Foreman attend the The Sense of an Ending lunch in New York City. Photograph: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

The Sense of an Ending is a very British film -- not just because the actors are British and it is set in England, but the mood of the film has a very British sense of smaller, quieter films.
How did you approach that?
How did you move from a very Bombay story to a film with a very British feel?

You know I moved to London five months before the shoot, just to get all the pieces right. And I knew the casting would take a while.

We were not just looking for look-alike actors but those who felt right. I moved to a neighbourhood where Tony Webster (Broadbent) would have lived.

With the long casting process, spending time with the actors, I got a sense of appreciation for the British reserve.

It is not an inability, but the lack of interest in dealing with tough situations. It's not just the British. Many of us do that although it is more common among the British of a certain age and class.

That is how I got to know first hand the flaws in the characters that were given to me. I understood that a lot of the issues that arise in the story would not happen if the characters did not have that British reserve in them.

One of the director's primary jobs is to make sure that all the actors perform as if they are in the same movie, playing in the same band -- one is not acting in a different band than the other.

The Lunchbox was a very quiet film, without over simplifying situations and underlying things. It also had an ambiguous ending. Where does that thinking come from?

When one is working with a book and making it into a movie -- the experience of reading the book is deeper than watching the movie.

There is a certain flatness in cinema and our brain is more different when reading a book with all its dimensions. The movie can't compete with that.

But ambiguity can play a very powerful role. If there is something ambiguous in a film, that is where you can invite the audience and their brain to engage with it and make it feel like a deeper experience.

As far this movie goes, that was the situation with Tony. Things are not clear to him as well.

The difference between the book and the movie is that in the book.

Tony is talking in retrospect. He already knows something. He is narrating to us what he learned from this journey.

In the movie, it is real time experience. And the ambiguity engages the audiences more.

I just started reading the book and it is wonderful to read a passage that appears as a dialogue or in the voiceover in the film. It is a very different experience from watching the film. The book stands by itself.

Hopefully, they are cousins. Movies and books have to be cousins, they can't be siblings. That's why I liked working with Nick.

In his first version of the script, there was already a distance between the movie and the book.

Do they have to be equal cousins, or one cousin has to be brighter and better?

It is a question of the distance.

When I was reading this book, I saw it as a character study, not as a mystery thriller. But the book has to be a different being. That is helpful in the long run.

I was watching a clip on, with some shots of you directing this film. You are a very calm person on the sets.

Yes, I guess so. I like having a team around that is focused on the work, so there is no drama.

We save the drama for the movie and not have it on the set. I always prefer that.

IMAGE: Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in Our Souls at Night.

When you made The Lunchbox, you worked with a star like Irrfan Khan. Then suddenly you worked with two very big actors on this film.
Immediately after that, you worked with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, who are huge iconic Hollywood stars.
They must obviously listen to you since you are the director. But how do they work?

There was the joy of working with Jim, Charlotte and Emily Mortimer. What I liked, for instance, with Charlotte was that she was always trying to get deeper into the material, getting the motivations of her character.

If they see the director working similarly, it is the same process.

It is the same process, but you worked with Indian actors, and then with British and American actors.

But actors have their own process. Some work inside out and bring out something deep inside them and portray it in their roles.

Other actors take things from the environment.

Some actors pay a lot of attention to their costume.

You have to recognise each actor's talent and personalities over the first week, over rehearsals and work with them that way.

As you work on more movies, you recognise and appreciate this.

This movie was an ensemble -- so many parts and it exposed me to different ways of working with actors and how I can be helpful to them.

Irrfan and Charlotte have similar ways of working.

Irrfan is always reading a book that is related to the movie. Charlotte is also trying to immerse herself into the movie in her own way, trying to find what the director wants, how to get deeper into the scene.

We had some very intense conversations. The experience of working with Irrfan was very helpful in working with Charlotte.

And the Hollywood actors -- don't they have a different persona as compared to the British actors?

I don't know about the persona, but the best thing about that movie was when Robert, Jane and I were in a room together rehearsing for a week, talking, making faces. That helped on the set.

We had warmed up to each other.

I was curious if you deliberately cast an Indian-British actor as the mailman in The Sense of an Ending.

It was my choice to cast him, but because he had a great comic timing and he is a wonderful actor. So it wasn't a consideration for his origins.

London has so much diversity that whenever there was opportunity to reflect that diversity, I would take it.

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Aseem Chhabra in New York