Just chhapo— Ritesh Batra on advice film writers get in Mumbai

The Lunchbox maker warns against such suggestions, but missed the city’s infectious energy while shooting the British production The Sense of An Ending

Anupama Chopra (AC): Ritesh, you’re in the process of putting the finishing touches on your second film, The Sense Of An Ending. It’s based on an award-winning novel by Julian Barnes. I have to mention that in February, at the European Film Market, distributors saw footage from the movie – not the whole movie, just the footage — and by the next morning, this film had sold out across the world. What did that feel like, or are you now used to things like this happening?

Ritesh Batra (RB): Not really. I’m not used to anything really. At that time I was so into the movie and making it and the edit and trying to make it work, so it was very strange. It was different with The Lunchbox because we finished it and we went to Cannes (Film Festival) and then the same thing happened, but it was after we screened it.

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AC: I remember you told me that while the screening of The Lunchbox was on, suddenly there was a flurry and people started to leave. You thought, ‘Oh my god. They don’t like the movie’. But actually it was sales agents running out to book the film.

RB: That’s what we heard. This time it was a little strange to know that it’s not finished yet and people are going to watch it because they’ve bought it so they have to put it out there. It was not pressure, it’s a privilege really. It is pressure in a sense. I mean you know you have a good movie but when you put it out there, it’s only then that you find out whether it’s going to float or what’s going to happen to it. It’s a very strange and different feeling to know that your work is actually going to be watched for sure whether it’s good or not.

AC: Do you find yourself a very different director on the second one than you were on the first? Has there been a lot of evolution in terms of your thought process or your style?

RB: I think so. I’ve learnt a lot about working with actors. Also, I think what’s been good is that I didn’t write this. So I felt more free. Because it’s very hard to separate the writer and the director. On The Lunchbox I had to work really hard to be the director and not the writer. But in this movie that was easier. I was just directing and working with the actors and also trying to recognize how every actor works.

So the way Jim (Broadbent) works and what his process is, is very different from Charlotte Rampling’s and that is very different Michelle Dockery’s who has done this great show Downton Abbey. Funnily, I was also able to carry some things over. The way Irrfan (Khan) works is very similar to the way Charlotte Rampling works.

AC:  Really? How so?

RB: It’s hard to articulate because I don’t have their instrument, so I’m not inside their heads. Over here in the UK, actors come from a place of text and they’re very wedded to it for good reasons and that’s their process. But with Charlotte and also with Irrfan, I found that it was a lot about talking about the character and where they are at that time and the text was almost secondary.

It was very nice and we kind of rediscovered Charlotte’s character on set. On the second day we were shooting, there was a scene we worked on at the National Theatre here in London. It was in a restaurant with Jim and for both of us it was just a new revelation into her character. She plays Veronica in the movie.

AC:  So she, as an actor, is more open to improvising and evolving and changing?

RB: Everyone is open to discovery but I found with her and Irrfan there was room to make a huge discovery. And it wouldn’t be unnerving in any way. They would just embrace. And with Irrfan too, when we were working on The Lunchbox, he had trained for field hockey and we were supposed to shoot a scene with him dribbling with a ball on his patio. And on the day I got there, I thought this doesn’t make any sense based on all the work we’ve done. He should just be sitting and listening to the radio. And that’s what he did. And he was just up for it. He just sat there on the armchair and listened to the radio instead of playing hockey. And it’s a big change in the journey of the character. It’s one thing versus another. But I found them very receptive to doing that.

Also, this movie has just a lot of people. Everyone has a younger version. So it’s set in the 60s and in the present day, so having those two things in your head all the time was a new burden to carry. The flashback world versus present day world and how that’s going to intermingle. So that was something new that I didn’t do last time.

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AC:  You know I asked Priyanka Chopra what is the one thing she would transpose from the West to India if she could, and she said the emphasis on the text, the writing. Would you agree, is that the one thing you think that we need to put into place?

RB: Of course. Screenwriting is such an American art form. What the American industry since the 1940s has done to screenwriting, I think, is put that emphasis on the writer’s work. I wouldn’t make something unless I had spent a couple of years writing it. It takes that long. It takes 2-4 years of developing something to make it good enough to make.

But I think that discipline can only be enforced if people are getting paid enough to write for that long. I remember before I made The Lunchbox, I came to Bombay with the script and I thought this movie is not going to be easy to get made so probably I can stay back and do something else. And the term that I heard a lot was very interesting, it was ‘just chhapo’. So a lot of people I would meet would tell me, ‘You know, this is what we’d like you to do in 3 weeks. Just chhapo it and bring it back’. So it’s a very technical term.

AC:  We need to stop chappoing?

RB: Ya

AC: What do you miss most about Bombay?

RB: I miss the energy, I miss the sun. There’s no sun here, as you know. Bombay is very difficult to get around, London is very easy to get around. But Bombay is very easy to get in. You get in with people, form communities and argue and joke and there’s a really nice reserve here. So you could actually be here for many years and not get to know anyone. I don’t think that’s possible in Bombay. You get to know everyone. Everyone makes sure that they get to know you and what you’re doing and what you ate and what happened in your house that morning. That’s what I miss most about Bombay.

AC: Thank you, Ritesh. And I can’t wait to see The Sense Of An Ending.

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