Spotlight: Ritesh Batra’s Poetic License

A piping hot Irani chai and some bun maska is a perfect accompaniment while discussing films. Don’t you think so? The Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra, a lover of cafes and their food, can’t seem to agree more! “I have a huge fascination for cafes,” Ritesh told Long Live Cinema at a talk he hosted and moderated at Fort’s Cafe Excelsior. “I have even shot a film in a cafe called Cafe Regular, Cairo. That film allowed me to make Lunchbox.” The session, which was a part of an ongoing series of talks initiated by Ritesh called Poetic License, is an attempt to save the city’s Irani cafes. It is not just about cuppa though, these talks deal with various aspects of filmmaking and allow free access to leading technicians of the industry. The first talk in the series was at Koolar Cafe in Matunga, which was also incidentally a location for Ritesh’s much-acclaimed film The Lunchbox, the scripting process of which was the topic of discussion for the day. “The idea is to reinvent these cafes as cultural spaces to meet and exchange ideas,” says Ritesh. “If we don’t connect the past to the future, we will lose the past.”

The seed for hosting these talks was sown right at Koolar cafe, says Ritesh. “For Lunchbox, we had to shoot in an Iranian cafe. And it was around that time that the old Irani cafe Bastani shut down. Merwan cafe was also at the verge of closing down,” he says. “That is how we ended up shooting at Koolar and it was great. From then on, I always wanted to come back and do something for these cafes.” A filmmaker who has travelled the world with his film, it wasn’t just the sad plight of Irani cafes that bothered him. “It is surprising that in Bombay, everybody does their own thing, nobody shares their work,” says Ritesh. “I wondered why we never did script workshops or readings here.” But on bouncing off his ideas with friends and colleagues, he realised that it was just an initiative waiting to be kicked off.


By the second edition, which featured actor Radhika Apte and director Sharat Katariya, at Kyani’s cafe in Marine Lines, the seats were full and requests from cafe owners started flowing into Ritesh’s inbox. “A lot of Irani cafes have started reaching out to us and a lot of people from the industry, too, have expressed interest in speaking at these sessions,” he says. “When we started this thing two months ago, we were thinking where we would do it and who would speak. But now everyone has started reaching out the cafes we have been to, they all want us to go back for more.”

The session Long Live Cinema attended had casting directors Atul Mongia (Love, Sex Aur Dhoka, Queen, Lootera) and Seher Latif (The Lunchbox) talking to aspiring actors and filmmakers on the process of casting. They answered questions on how to land auditions and how to build networks among other things. The vibe was informal and by the end of the session, phone numbers and email ids were exchanged. “It is an easy way to start a community. We always have a full house and it is a great way to connect with your peers and technicians,” says Ritesh, who is currently writing his next movie. “We have had a few people come for all our sessions and we have new faces, too. So it is a good mix of both.”

As of now, he plans to host a talk at least once in two weeks and soon hopes to extend the scope of these workshops to other fields outside of cinema. Soon, we can expect to chat with a well-known writer, product designer and publisher, says Ritesh, although he stops short of divulging names. The dates and venues of these free-for-all sessions are currently tweeted a week in advance by Ritesh and it is widely shared on social media sites. Many who attend have developed a taste for Irani food as well and have ended up becoming regulars at these cafes, say the owners. Ritesh is hopeful that Poetic License will soon become a part of the city’s rich cultural fabric. “The only way we can ensure this is by keeping it going,” he says. “Not once, twice or thrice, we have to make sure it happens every single time. Then, it will make a difference, to both the cafes and this can become a regular feature in this city’s cultural landscape.”

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