Director: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Jim Sarbh, Vijay Raaz, Geetanjali Kulkarni
If you’re a millennial (like me) or even a Gen X’er, you might still remember the days of yore when traveling to new places also meant getting plenty of pictures clicked in awkward poses by one of the many street photographers thronging the tourist spots. You would dutifully let the photographer call the shots, and tilt your head this way or that, stand a bit closer to your beloved, or emulate one of the many other corny poses to make it a success. And then you got handed the hard copies of those photographs to later file them away neatly in the family album, reserved for nostalgic gushing over a family gathering or a rain-soaked afternoon in the future.
Once the selfie boom made its appearance, everything changed. Our lives, the way we view the world, but most of all, the way we began to view ourselves. Sadly, in the microcosm of this apparently innocent technological revolution, street photographers eking out their living out of making people smile were the hardest hit. I mean, if you had an iPhone or a One Plus, and were visiting the Taj Mahal, what would you do? Click your own selfies with filters and special effects or pay the photographer to click you in a practiced pose – mostly in the camera’s P mode?
However, despite living in an era where millions of carefully created images grace the social media space every day, a photograph can mean many things to many people. In Ritesh Batra’s Photograph, a photograph alludes to years of toil and hardship buried underneath, of hopes crushed and then revived, a journey of layers peeled and layers owned; actually, anything that you seek to take away from the movie.
Photograph is a tale of two palpably distinct characters, stewing away in their own existence, mostly without rhyme or reason, because they have to. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a street photographer who clicks tourists at the Gateway of India for a living. Debt and poverty mark every inch of his being, as he trudges from one day to the next without an end in sight. Until one day, a shy, introverted girl, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) crosses paths at the site and agrees to get herself clicked, only to hurriedly leave without paying him. He is slightly amused, but takes it in his stride, much like the feeling of desolation, defeat and all else engulfing his life. Except his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) whose only desire now is to see her grandson married and settled before she passes on into the other world, is getting restless with Rafi’s lack of a sense of urgency about his own existence.
And so are his circle of friends, the neighbourhood bhajjiya wala, cab-driver as well as the grocery store guy. Suddenly, the whole world wants him to quit running the pointless marathon that has come to define him and get himself a wife. Sombre life advice is dished out sandwiched between funny anecdotes about dead people who pressed the exit button without so much as leaving a letter behind, because they did not have anyone to bid their goodbyes to. Still reluctant, yet slightly shaken, Rafi, on a whim, sends a picture of the unassuming, yet beautiful stranger he had met at the Gateway, concocting a wild story around their “love”, naming her Noorie and claiming her as his fiancée. Understandably, dadi is thrilled and wants to come to Mumbai and meet his fiancée for real.
Caught in a web that would only grow denser with time, Rafi sets out hunting this mysterious stranger, aided by a picture of her on a billboard of a coaching institute. And as unbelievable as it may sound, he convinces Miloni to play along with his ploy till his granny is around in the city. Miloni, who until now, has only known a life of gruelling academics and has been forced to wear an invisible crown on her head – much like her picture on the billboard – perceives this amusing incident as a prospect to be something more than the high achiever tag she has been wearing, and of course, as a fitting occasion to quietly, yet resolutely rebel against her upper-class, stiff Gujju family.
Out they go, hopping into cabs, touring the city’s myriad landscapes, day after day while taking Rafi’s grandmother around – until this ritual is what each of them looks forward to, even after granny departs for her native village back in Uttar Pradesh. Between the first photograph and the next few, hope descends in the circumstances of these two starkly dissimilar protagonists. Where Rafi succeeds in finding a way out of the maze of disappointments (or so we are made to believe) dotting his life, courtesy Miloni’s fondness for Campa Cola, the latter awakens to the realization that in the photograph taken by Rafi, she was looking back at a girl who looked happier and prettier than she was. The deep connotations associated with a photograph taken on impulse could not have been portrayed more poetically than has been done by director Ritesh Batra.
Batra’s nuanced direction also seeps through in the discretion with which he deals with his characters. Much like Irrfan’s deadbeat, dry Saajan Fernandes (of Lunchbox fame), Nawazuddin as Rafi is handled with equal parts cynicism and equal parts panache, who dares to break of out of a somewhat self-imposed, yet largely circumstantially built prison. Siddiqui embodies the struggles of a migrant man trying to survive Mumbai in a way that feels raw to the bone, almost like he is symbolically retelling his own hardships on the silver screen. That said, in Siddiqui’s portrayal of a despondent man, there isn’t a lot that you may not have seen before in the actor’s own earlier projects. So for our sakes and his, I am desperately hoping the next project he picks will paint him in a brighter light than all his past ventures have individually and collectively painted him.
Jaffar as Rafi’s grandmother plays the cardboard granny quite effortlessly, emotionally blackmailing her grandson to settle down by refusing to take her medicines. Loud, grumpy, blunt and sarcastic, she plays to perfection the proverbial Hitler dadi with a heart of gold buried under her chest. So while wondering how her grandson landed this fair beauty, she giggles good-naturedly about finally realizing her dream of having fair grandkids. For a movie dominated by vintage lenses and poignant silences, these snippets of the grandmother’s candid conversations with Rafi and “Noorie” come across as a breath of fresh air, almost equalizing the otherwise moody atmospheric build-up permeating Photograph’s narrative.
It is Sanya Malhotra as Miloni who is brilliant, yet confusing, in spurts. From the word go there is an uneasy hesitation about her, almost like there is a sea of words waiting to tumble out of her lips and she somehow catches the wave in her throat at the last minute. Miloni is frankly, an uninteresting character, passive and utterly bland for the most part. So much so that a potential suitor remarks that she looks prettier in the photograph, ironically the only recent photograph of her clicked by Rafi.
Malhotra’s brilliance nevertheless, shines through in a couple of scenes. For instance, during one of the classes when Miloni excitedly shares the photograph with her classmates, they look as fascinated to see her in a different light than they’ve known her. For a few minutes, and barely just, Miloni transforms into a regular girl keenly aware of the hidden layers of her personality, and not merely the CA topper everyone identifies her as.
She is also acutely sensitive and aware of the class barriers rising tall between her and Rafi. So one night when she sits the maid (realistically essayed by Geetanjali Kulkarni) down and asks her about her family and what they do, you realize she is trying to bridge the chasm between her and them (the ones living on the fringes of poverty), and by that token, get a step closer to Rafi. Her eagerness to blend into Rafi’s world and understand the same is subtle, yet striking, even if it takes surviving the ordeal of watching a movie in a rodent-infested cinema hall.
Apart from the leads, Jim Sarbh as the head of the coaching institute is crisp and impactful in a brief role, and yet, I wished he had been given more to do in the movie. Vijay Raaz in his cameo is arresting and adds a touch of make-believe to the grey atmosphere of the film.
For instance, despite the duo’s willingness to jump into uncharted territories marked by religious, class and age divides, we only manage to grab at and second-guess what each character might individually be thinking. We do not know the real dynamics of their relationship or even a hint of how, or if, they plan to traverse this gulf. There are no real conversations about issues that are screaming red flags, and a lot is left to the audience to piece together and come to a conclusion. This not only makes it frustrating for the viewer, it also forces idealism in circumstances and seems far removed from their stubborn realities.
Despite its obvious flaws, one element Photograph scores high on is the cinematography. Much like its title, the movie is a testament to the undecorated, hurried yet pensive beauty that is Mumbai. Curious cab drivers, hawkers, a kirana shop in Rafi’s neighbourhood, the stretch of marine drive, Gateway of India and the salty air floating over the city – cinematographer Ben Kutchins has successfully captured each of these elements, rendering them a touch of timelessness. It would, therefore, not be an understatement to say that the film at times feels like a testament to Mumbai – the city of dreams, where anything is possible.
And yet, Photograph simmers and simmers, never really taking off.
“Saalon baad jab aap yeh photo dekhengi Madam, toh aapko aapke chehre pe yehi dhoop dikhai degi”, Rafi tries to persuade Miloni at the start of the film. He may be right.
If for nothing else, Photograph ought to be watched, solely so you can enjoy the poetic finesse it brings alive on screen. It may be incomplete, wistful even. But it will remind to smile in the darkest of places.