Ritesh Batra, director of the acclaimed The Lunchbox, has just finished filming an adaptation of Julian Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending. The book is about a man whose attempts to make sense of his distant past are constantly stymied. As the elderly Tony tries to understand the full implications of things that he did 40 years earlier, a woman whom he had briefly had a relationship with tells him, “You still don’t get it. You never did, and you never will.” These words can be seen as a refrain for a story that repeatedly draws attention to the unreliability of human memory and our tendency to create comforting, self-aggrandising narratives (or “endings”) for ourselves.
In an interview, Batra discusses his involvement with the unscheduled release, in which Jim Broadbent plays the older version of Tony and Charlotte Rampling plays the enigmatic Veronica.
How did your association with ‘The Sense of an Ending’ come about? Had you read the novel before you were approached to direct the film?
I’m a big Julian Barnes fan and had read the book when it was published in 2011; I had even considered working on an adaptation at the time, but I was under the impression that something was already in progress – and besides, I usually prefer to work with my own stories. Then, a couple of years later, the offer came to direct the film, along with a draft of a wonderful screenplay done by Nick Payne.
I worked closely with Nick, it became a collaborative process, we made a few changes here and there.
Was Barnes involved in the process? Did you get to meet him?
He wasn’t involved with the screenplay, but he came on the set to give us his blessing. He told us, “Go ahead and betray me.”
What appealed most to you about the novel?
What I found most interesting was that it is about an elderly man coming to terms with his past, but the book spoke to me even as a youngster. I found myself looking back at the relatively short life I have had, thinking about things that had happened, seeing them through new eyes. It was also a reminder that great literature is all around us, in all our lives – there are fascinating stories at the next table in a restaurant. Life itself is the stuff of great literature, you just need the hand that will write it down.
Then, of course, there are little ways in which one starts to relate to the characters and their relationships, tie them to one’s own life. My daughter is three now, she had just been born when this project began, but I found myself reflecting on Tony’s relationship with his daughter – who isn’t really a presence in the book, we only hear about her once in a while, but it created a connection.
It is such an interior novel – so much of it deals with the narrator’s reflections on memory, self-deception and guilt. What was the challenge in making it cinematic? Did you and Payne place greater emphasis on the plot-and-conversation-driven passages?
As you say, it’s a very interior book, full of Tony’s ruminations. Every page was a challenge for us, and it is still a challenge even after the shooting is over – we are in postproduction now, doing music and sound, and those things help determine the final effect of a film.
In adapting it, we did, of course, focus on plot and action, but more than that one looks at what drives the engine of a story. I’m a little hesitant at this point to discuss The Sense of an Ending in detail, but take the example of The Lunchbox, which is also a very interior story: what is driving that film is the characters’ need to reach out to each other, the sense of anticipation – waiting for each other’s letters, the Irrfan character Saajan waiting for the tiffin every day. In a way, The Lunchbox was like a novel that I had inside me, one that I didn’t actually have to write out.
The Sense of an Ending is the sort of story where not very much seems to happen at the level of plot, but so much is happening inside the characters’ heads – and to convey that, it’s very important to work closely with the actors, to find the right texture for the characters. Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling were wonderful to work with, and brought so much to the roles.
The book’s ending is ambiguous and subject to interpretation – the sort that has readers analysing and arguing. How does one deal with such ambiguity in a feature film?
Yes, for instance, there is the character of Sarah Ford (Veronica’s mother), who is so ambiguous. She appears only in a few pages but is very central to the narrative. On the question of reaching for a definite conclusion – yes, you grapple with this constantly, and you have to be careful. Again I can’t get into details of how we handled certain scenes – that is best discussed and dissected after the film is out – but I had similar pressures on me while making The Lunchbox too. There was pressure to have the Irrfan and Nimrat characters meet in the end, to have a clearly spelled out moment like that, or to even just use the sound of a doorbell to convey to the audience that they definitely are meeting. I resisted that. With stories like these, one has to find an ingenious way to convey ambiguity, and convey the new realities in people’s lives.
A movie can never equal a book, but you want the adaptation to complement the novel in some way, while finding its own voice. The worst adaptations in my view are the ones that try to be slavishly faithful. I think of the relationship between a good film and its source text as being akin to the relationship between two step-siblings who really happen to get along very well – they aren’t blood relations, but they have a bond.
One of the big themes of the book is the huge gulf between youth and old age: the impetuousness of young people – their capacity to be alive and vibrant, but also unfathomably cruel– set against the more measured, safer attitudes that most people develop as they age. Given that you are only in your mid-30s,did you ever feel intimidated by the subject?
As I said, the book did speak personally to me. Obviously I can’t be what I’m not – I can’t be Tony Webster, either in terms of his age or his personality, so there’s no point worrying that I wouldn’t be able to deal with the old-age theme. What’s more important is that one has to have the inner motivation and sustain it for a year – the time it took to do this – and I got that both from the material and from the people I was working with.
Did any films serve as reference points for you while making this one? The flashback scenes in the novel are set in the British school system of the 1960s; while reading them I thought both of the kitchen-sink British films of the early ’60s and a cry-against-authority film like Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If…’
My reference points weren’t so much films that had similar content or settings, but in terms of visual style I became more interested in movies that had static frames, with the camera staying still for long periods: the sort of work that Yasujiro Ozu, [Akira] Kurosawa, or even John Huston, did. I think part of the reason for this is that Barnes’s story is already about ambiguity, about a narrator who might be unreliable at times, and I didn’t want to muddy things further. When you’re reading Tony’s narrative in the novel, you’re swept along and you take some of the things he says at face value. In a film though, one is constantly second-guessing, wondering if this or that is true. And I didn’t want to manipulate viewers on yet another level by having the camera swishing around, doing lots of different things.
As for the period of the story, we researched extensively to get the details right. I was friends with the late Alan Rickman, who had been to school with Julian Barnes, and he told me a lot about the time, what it was like growing up in this particular milieu with particular sorts of people.
This is a rare case of an Indian director helming a film that has practically no Indian connection. Do you see this as a sign that walls are falling when it comes to defining/labelling a particular director or writer?
Well, I hope so. I still don’t know what to make of it – all I know is that I had a great time making the film, the actors were wonderful, and Barnes himself was so generous and supportive.
I have spent a lot of time here [in England] making this film, and I would like to come back and deal with an Indian story, perhaps something set in Mumbai.
Both your features have been sophisticated, inward-looking narratives. Do you see yourself sticking with this tradition, or will you ever do something that’s a little nearer to the tradition of mainstream Indian cinema?
It can be a bit of both, maybe – I don’t know, it’s hard to say beforehand, because what typically happens is that when you actually work on a film, you feel your way through it and develop a sense of what is the right approach for this material. In any case, I’m not sure it’s easy to say these days what is mainstream and what is not – I’d like to think The Lunchbox was mainstream in its own way! More than those categories and labels, I’m most interested in doing something that I find truthful.