Photograph Review: A fuzzy tale of sun and shade
Ritesh Batra's Mumbai-set film is a sweet homage to the movies that complete our dreams
Miloni has taken sick. The matter amuses her family doctor, an old man in a jocular mood, who mock-commends her ‘adventurousness’. Her Gujarati father is less tickled. Played by a resuscitated Sachin Khedekar, the man implores better sense from his CA-aspirant daughter. How could she, his droopy shoulders seem to ask, commit the grave crime of... gulping ice candy from a street vendor?
Life is a snatched luxury in the world of Ritesh Batra — packed off in misplaced lunchboxes, passed around in instant photo prints. I use the word ‘instant’ with caution, lest it suggest the Internet. These are not stories of gratification, or fulfilment, or connect, but the longing that precedes. If anything, his new film tells of a time caving in on itself, of grand inventions becoming abrupt relics: anklets, cola machines, movie halls. Songs, photographs.
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui ,Sanya Malhotra
Director: Ritesh Batra
Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a street photographer canvassing at the Gateway of India in Mumbai. He lives in the suburbs, in a chawl shared by five, or six counting a limber ghost. Pestered by his hell-raising dadi (Farrukh Jaffar, Swades, Peepli Live, Sultan), he dupes her into believing that he has found the girl of his life, and is ready to settle down. That girl, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), is all over town in the least alluring way: on hoardings advertising her CA coaching centre, where she has topped the preliminaries.
The conceit is sketchy, broken, and needs forgiving. Rafi sends dadi a picture he’d clicked of Miloni; the ruse backfires and grandma arrives in flesh. To keep up, Rafi stakes out Miloni’s daily route. She agrees to play along, straight off, goaded by the tedium of her boxed-in life. A romance is thus hatched, in mute reverence to the 70s and 80s, full of bus rides and Irani cafes and taxis sloshing through rain.
It’s been a strange year for Nawazuddin Siddiqui. After Manto and Thackeray — two biopics that lensed the same city in opposite shades; one springing from Bombay, the other from Mumbai — he appears in a film in search of a more personal mindscape. The actor wears a faraway insouciance in Photograph, plucking lines and cues from the edges of the frame. The camera, likewise, mimics his mind: jittery in moments of indecision, locked down in portions of poise.
Then there are times Rafi completely disappears, like when he explains to Miloni why he never has time to watch movies. “Everyone is running in the city,” he says with a slight spin of the fingers — and it could just be the actor giving an interview, talking about his early days. This is Nawaz at his most deflated, cleared of technique, allowed to breathe. It’s a light, refreshing performance, and his best in many years.
Yet, Sanya wins. In a spurt of just four films — Dangal, Pataakha, Badhaai Ho and Photograph — the actor has established herself as a master of understatement. That this was the second film she signed after Dangal speaks to her rare emotional intelligence, and her frightening grip on a story’s pulse. Sanya’s Miloni speaks through muffled, measured sighs, a quiet college girl sustaining her own implosion while keeping an eye out for discovery. Batra burdens her arc with the sub-theme of class, but the actor delivers.
Even with all its nuance, Photograph is a little misguided in style. The repetitive notes tangle up the screenplay, circling around the same ideas instead of throwing up something new. The performances grow ponderous, while the writing thins out. British composer Peter Raeburn does much of the heavy lifting; his score is sparse and hypnotic, and deserves a separate release.
In the final scene, Miloni steps out of a rundown theatre. Rafi follows suit, convinced how the film will end. He tells her all films end the same way — song, romance, parental objection — as they exit into the afternoon sun. You’d expect the camera to follow them, but it stays inside the theatre, lingering on a tattered poster.
Ritesh Batra has crafted a sweet homage to the movies that complete our dreams. It takes a while but finds its heart. Don’t let the festival olives tell you otherwise. Photograph is a Hindi film that’s happy to be one.