Director Ritesh Batra on loneliness, British reserve, and ambiguity
Ritesh Batra isn’t a household name — just yet.
The Indian-born director burst onto the scene in 2013 with his debut feature “The Lunchbox,” a romantic drama about a lonely, middle-aged Indian widower who develops a relationship, via letters, with the young, unhappily married woman who prepares his lunch every day, delivered through an elaborate system of couriers, called dabbawalas. The movie won Batra a prize at Cannes and went on to become an arthouse hit. Offers to direct started pouring in, which led to the filmmaker’s latest project: a high-profile adaptation of Julian Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, “The Sense of an Ending.”
Written for the screen by playwright Nick Payne (“The Art of Dying”), the film centers on an English camera-shop owner named Tony (Jim Broadbent), who is jogged out of his complacent lifestyle by a letter announcing the death of an old acquaintance who has bequeathed to him a mysterious diary. This stirs up old memories of Tony’s former flame, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), and their backstory — which involves a startling secret — unspools through a combination of present-day encounters and flashbacks.
The 37-year-old Batra, who is putting the finishing touches on his third feature, the forthcoming Netflix drama “Our Souls at Night” starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, phoned from New York to talk about beginnings and endings. Q: “The Sense of an Ending” leaves an exquisite ambiguity as to the resolution of its mystery. Without revealing spoilers, can you talk about how you handled the book’s central enigma? A: When I picked up the book, which I loved, one of the first things I thought, regarding its ambiguities, is how much is between the lines — and the beautiful thing is that it’s only the size of a novella. I was really conscious about preserving that ambiguity. From an acting standpoint, in order to ground the performances, you have to play something specific. The work of preserving ambiguity is not glossing over something. It’s actually delving deeply into it. Q: Ambiguity, then, requires more clarity, not less? A: That’s a much better way to put it. Q: “The Lunchbox” also had something of an unresolved ending. What’s the appeal of leaving things hanging? A: I don’t know if that does appeal to me so much. When I was making “Lunchbox,” I wrote on the first page of the script, “Less is more.” I underlined it. The crew and the actors would make fun of me: “Here comes less-is-more.” It became a running joke. But I don’t want to say that ambiguity is my forte. We live in an age when people are seeing everything. They don’t want to feel things. They want to see things. When you’re directing or writing something, or even editing it — editing is like rewriting — you’ve got to be very conscious about “What do I want people to feel here?” Not “What do I want people to see?” Q: And what is it that you want people to feel here, with “The Sense of an Ending”? A: The feeling I got when I read the book, and when I was making the movie — I just felt that everything ends badly, invariably. Youth goes away. We love people and then they leave us. That’s the whole point. Nothing has a happy ending. But it’s still a gift to be here. That question — Why is it a gift to be here? Why don’t more people commit suicide? — that is the conundrum of life. Nick and I were just trying to present that question, all the time. Q: Does “The Sense of an Ending” a theme of human connection — or disconnection — with “The Lunchbox”? A: I don't think about the threads a lot, between those two films, or between them and this third movie. Maybe there’s something there about urban loneliness. Maybe I’m lonely. I wish I could give you a smart answer. Q: You’ve said that adapting the book turned out to be a bigger challenge than you expected. How so? A: Julian was very generous. When I met him the first time, he said, “Go ahead and betray me.” I was thinking about what that means. It also means, “Don’t disappoint me.” It means, “Don’t just take my book and make it into a movie. Do something with it.” Those are great marching orders to have from a writer. Q: Did that give you a kind of license? A: Absolutely. The hardest thing about adapting it was that the book is basically one man’s interior monologue, with an audience. We fleshed out certain relationships, with Tony’s ex-wife, for instance. We created a relationship with Tony’s daughter, out of air, to frame the story with. The book has a Part 1, set in the past, and a Part 2, set in the present. We subsumed Part 1 within Part 2, creating the structure of the film in the editing.
In the casting, we were looking for the best actor, not the best resemblance. The actor Billy Howle, for instance, who plays the young Tony — he looks nothing like the young Jim Broadbent. But he took upon himself some of Jim’s mannerisms and quirks. Q: Charlotte’s performance reminds me of her Oscarnominated role in “45 Years,” another film about an old couple and the emergence of a longshare buried secret. Do you see similarities? A: I actually always wanted to see that movie, because I’m good friends with the producer. But I try to avoid seeing my actors in other films when I’m working. I wanted to see Charlotte as Veronica. Q: Were you caught off guard by the success of “The Lunchbox”? A: Maybe I haven’t experienced a whole lot of it, but I think that’s the nature of success. If it doesn’t catch you off guard, then there’s something wrong with you. “The Lunchbox” was a very small movie, very difficult, sewn together with European government funds, grants from Germany and France, a little equity from India and a lot of donated time from people in America. I had spent a lot of my 20s trying to get a movie made that never got made, but I made a lot of relationships through that process. Basically, every friend I had in the world contributed something to “The Lunchbox.”
The movie played at Critics Week at Cannes, and it exploded from there. I remember shooting “Our Souls at Night” last September, in Florence, Colorado, a small town of 3,800 people with one cinema, and people there told me they had seen “The Lunchbox.” That’s crazy. It’s a town with a supermax prison, and not much else. Q: You’ve described “The Lunchbox” as a very Indian story. Is there something especially English about “The Sense of an Ending,” perhaps in its characters’ British reserve — the way they leave things unsaid? A: Yes. It took me awhile to understand British reserve. I was used to being in Bombay, or New York or Mexico City, where people talk more directly. During preproduction, I would tell the crew, “I would like you to do this,” and they would answer, “That will be slightly difficult.” If it’s only slightly difficult, then let’s do it. I come back a week later, and it’s not done. Well, it turns out that “slightly difficult” means that it’s impossible. You’d hear them saying, “The director is a real a-----.” Once you get to understand British reserve, it’s endearing. Q: You were recently named one of “10 Directors to Watch” by Variety, along with Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight” and other rising stars. Is the pressure on now? A: I take it in stride. What else can you do? This is not an easy job, in many ways. It’s a real privilege to be doing this — telling people what you want and trying to get it out of them. It doesn’t get any better than that. But it also doesn’t get easier because of an honor.
Jim Broadbent and Harriet Walter in “The Sense of an Ending,” directed by Ritesh Batra, whose debut feature “The Lunchbox” won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival and became an art-house hit.