Ritesh Batra’s debut work The Lunchbox, was supported by the Sundance Institute and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for the 2015 BAFTAs. He has since worked on Our Souls At Night, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, and The Sense of an Ending with Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling. Photograph, his newest work, is in theaters through Amazon Studios from May 17. He has a passion for running, reading, and fountain pens. His favorite color is blue.
Let’s just admit it. This feels new to both of us. Writing letters. Or reading them. Maybe it’s because we’ve had our phones for too long. Maybe it’s because we don’t really know each other, so why would we write one another? But do we really have to know someone to write them? Remember “pen friends”? Back when the world was larger? I never had a pen friend, but my father did, when he was young. His pen friend was a nurse in Australia; he was a student in Bombay. They exchanged pictures and letters. And then one day, they stopped writing each other.
I suspect they didn’t write much at all, just some details of their lives – their city, favorite color, favorite food, the people at home … hobbies? “I hope this letter finds you in the best of health.” Then she writes back: “I am in the best of health, my patients, not so much. I am a nurse, you see.” Things like that. … The thing about letters is, dear reader, that when we write a letter to someone, we are also writing to ourselves. A letter is different from an interview, in that sense. Interviews are full of lite lies, like lite beer. Low on calories, and low on taste. Not all of them, but by and large. People lie in interviews a lot. Most of those lies don’t hurt anyone. And between the lies, there are worthy truths … stray thoughts, pauses … deliberations on process, craft, and creativity that leave us, how can I put it, “satisfied”? I’d much rather read an interview – lite lies and all – than a boring, self-indulgent monologue that meanders, runs, stops, starts, saunters, hops, scurries …
But, I’ll tell you what, dear reader, now that we are “pen friends,” I can talk to you. Or rather, I can talk to myself while pretending that I am talking to you. We can get to know each other, even as I get to know myself better. That is the beauty of letters. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I feel so poor. Don’t get me wrong, I am not as poor as I used to be. And real poverty – the kind that crushes the soul and shrinks the body, the kind that requires deep character and spiritual fortitude to get through – I’ve never really experienced it. I am talking of the fear of poverty, rather than poverty. It’s not exactly that, though that is also part of it. I want to tell you something about myself, give you a piece of myself. Something more than my favorite color (blue), favorite season (winter), or favorite car (a bicycle).
The kind of poverty I am talking about is the comfortable kind. The one with the full stomach. The one in which you get to wallow in your couch and feel sorry for yourself. It is real, though, in the sense that it makes you dance to its tunes, it runs around your brain like a rat, and it gets stuck in your throat. It is a catchy tune with bad lyrics. I got rid of said poverty, and I want to tell you all about it. (This is a letter, not an interview; I promised.) I started feeling it about two years ago. The poverty of spirit, the kind that comes with having an artistic life; it’s one of the hazards of the job, you see? And then I decided to stop making things, and instead to start creating things. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, I am still figuring that out. But I want to share this part of myself with you. That’s what “pen friends” are for.
When one sets off on an artistic path, if one is so lucky, oftentimes what happens is that you spend a lot of time creating that thing they call a “calling card.” And it’s true, if you manage to create that, they do come calling. And it’s a blessing because now you can go about your artistic career and get paid for doing what you love. You can even walk into a bookstore and buy all the books you want. Stop sharing the Netflix password. Eat out every now and again. Go back to school, this time to talk about your work. It’s nice. But pretty soon, you are making things, not creating them.
I’ll tell you more, let me elaborate, allow me to share with you an insight. A secret. No one else will say it. You read it here first. No, I’m only joking. What I am about to say is so simple. It amazes me I didn’t know it every waking moment of my life. The truth is I did, I just didn’t know how to put it in words. But that’s what movies do, don’t they? They put into words, or in pictures, the things we know but don’t know how to say. You see, creating my first movie allowed me the space to be an artist. It is like the song in a musical, it wraps up the actor, in a halo, the halo of performance. After that number, you feel like you know this person: they expressed their inner life to you. Shared something. Now it’s the writer’s or creator’s job to take that emotional investment and make the character do something that is both logical and unexpected.
Stay with me, my dear pen friend. Like a musical number wraps the actor in the glow of performance, the first movie, the first success, wraps the artist in the glow of expectation. But love, as they say, is a many splendored thing. Use it to make things and it will stand around in askance, and use it to create things and it will help you along to the next logical and unexpected stop.
I feel like I need to explain myself to you. Be more clear. To you. Or to myself, rather. Because that’s what letters do. The recipient is just an excuse to write a letter the writer wanted to write to himself or herself or themselves. The difference between creating things and making them, what it is, I think – is like clearing out some brush, planting new trees there, so that others can come play in it. They can bring their lives to it, walk away with many questions – that is creating something. Making something, on the other hand, is like going to the park, sitting on the swing for a bit, going down the slide, jumping in the sandpit. That’s making things. It’s nice. It is also the treadmill of the artist life.
Two years ago, I got back to creating things. And stopped making them. I picked up my pen again, like my life and next meal depended on it. The piece of land I had cleared seemed overgrown again, so I hacked at the brush, leveled the ground … planted some trees, so people would come, bring their lives to it, sit down on the bench and take in the park that is different from all other parks because it’s my park … the only way to get there is a bicycle, because the bicycle is my favorite car. “My favorite car is a bicycle.” That has a better ring to it. I hope that we will remain “pen friends” forever. I enjoyed writing to you very much, and also myself. I hope this letter finds you in the best of health.
All my love,
New York, May, 2019
Featured image by Joe D’Souza, courtesy Amazon Studios.
Click here to download a handwritten version of the above letter.