Hindi film music plays a supporting character in Ritesh Batra’s Photograph, which is a tentative love story (if it can be called that). This music fills the air around Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui; the character’s name, of course, is no accident). He’s a photographer. He stands at the Gateway of India and takes pictures of visitors, promising that this will make them remember the sun on their face, long after their memories have faded. Back home in his cramped neighbourhood, he shares a room with other migrant workers, all of whom know that his grandmother (who lives in another city) is pressuring him to get married. Rafi wants to convince his grandmother that he’s with someone. As he writes the letter, he wonders what he should call this imaginary girlfriend. Lata Mangeshkar’s title song of Noorie floats over his head. That’s the name. He will call her Noorie.
But then, the grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) announces that she is visiting, and Rafi has to rustle up a flesh-and-blood Noorie. This is a classic Hrishikesh Mukherjee premise, involving frenetic play-acting and a benign kind of deceit. But Ritesh Batra works in a more subdued key. A CA student, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), agrees to be Rafi’s Noorie, and to no one’s surprise, Rafi begins to fall for this girl from the other side of the tracks, his opposite in every sense: her complexion is lighter, her family is more affluent, and she’s Hindu. Rafi is not the sort of man who can express his feelings, but why worry when his namesake is still on the airwaves? Tumne mujhe dekha… becomes Rafi’s anthem. (This is probably accidental, but how lovely that Miloni’s character arc is shaped by a Hindu playback singer and Rafi’s by a Muslim.) The song suits him. It’s a love song, but it’s tinged with melancholy.
Miloni is tinged with melancholy, too. Her parents decide everything in her life and we see how this weighs her down when she looks out at the sea during a ferry ride — it’s a melancholic face, and the theme that plays over it is a melancholic tune. I found the character a cypher. It’s hard to say what’s going on inside. We see that she had dreams of being an actress and took part in plays at school until her mother put an end to it, but is that enough to explain her participation in Rafi’s charade? I would have believed this contrivance with Gully Boy’s Safeena, who is similarly repressed at home but finds ways, outside, to act out. Miloni, though, is such a one-note moper (and Sanya’s performance, though empathetic, suffers as a result) that we never see what makes her (literally) act out. The part where Rafi explains his situation to her and Miloni consents occurs off-screen. This director is delicate like that.
He likes stories about distance. His breakout hit, The Lunchbox (still his best film), revolved around physical distance. Our Souls at Night and Photograph deal with emotional, social distance. Ritesh Batra makes largely predictable stories in a middlebrow-artsy style — they are beautifully directed, he gets terrific actors, and he keeps his worlds contained. But the danger of being a minimalist is that you have fewer notes to hit, and after a while, you run out of variations if the “plot” is small, too. Photograph feels like a novella stretched into a novel — and there is such a thing as too much good taste. When Rafi’s grandmother recalls their impoverished past, she says, “Did we always cry? Didn’t we also laugh and have good times?” That tonal variation is something I craved in this story. The scenes where Miloni really “sees” their domestic help (a superb Geetanjali Kulkarni) feel abstract, like a sketch that needed to be filled in with more colour.
But, like always, the little touches are marvellous — starting with a rattly ceiling fan that (in a sweetly surreal moment) literally becomes a character. The marginal characters, like the Mumbai cab drivers, make strong impressions in their limited screen time. And I loved the bond between Rafi and his grandmother. Farrukh Jaffar is cracklingly alive. She’s the electroshock paddle the film sorely needs, and even Miloni/Sanya is jolted to life in her presence. Nawazuddin Siddiqui anchors Photograph with a beautifully unadorned performance. The film, too, is largely unadorned — the cinematographers (Tim Gillis, Ben Kutchins) are alert to the grimness of daily existence. But in one scene, they cut loose, and the effect is fabulous. It involves a bottle of Campa Cola and an old man who adores his wife, and the setting is lit with shafts of golden light, and Peter Raeburn’s theme swells… It’s like heaven. It’s what love is, at its most rapturous. It’s like Tumne mujhe dekha come to life.