Director: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra
Photograph is a meditative movie on a relationship that I hesitate to call love. It took me back to Gulzar Saab’s beautiful lyrics in a song in the 1970 film Khamoshi. He wrote: Humne dekhi hai in aankhonki mehakti khushboo/haath se chhoo ke ise rishton ka ilzaam na do/sirf eshaas hai ye rooh se mehsoos karo/pyaar ko pyaar hi rehne do koi naam na do.
Miloni and Rafi also share a bond that is hard to define. They are separated by class, education, religion, even skin color. She is a fair, attractive girl from a conservative Gujarati middle-class family. She’s also a brilliant student whose face is on the posters of her chartered accounting coaching class. He is an uneducated Muslim man who works as a photographer at the Gateway of India and lives a hard-scrabble life. As his grandmother describes them – bilkul aisa lag raha hai ki ek plate mein rasgulla aur gulab jamun.
They come together because Rafi, who happens to take Miloni’s photo at the Gateway, sends it to his grandmother pretending that he has found a girlfriend. The grandmother, a memorably feisty and fierce woman, is so happy that she decides to visit Mumbai. Miloni agrees to pretend to be Noorie – the name Rafi has given his imaginary girlfriend because the song happened to be playing while he was writing his lying letter to his grandmother. Hindi film music plays a leading role in the film – it’s no accident that the protagonist’s name is Rafi.
To savor the gossamer emotions of Photograph, you first have to buy into the scenario that a girl like Miloni would agree to participate in Rafi’s charade. It is hard to believe but if you can suspend disbelief, you will be rewarded. You also have to make peace with the film’s stillness and measured pace – director Ritesh Batra isn’t creating a narrative with dense plot and propulsive movement. Instead he’s visualizing a delicate and evocative poem.
In my review of Ritesh’s first feature film The Lunchbox, I had quoted E. M. Forster’s famous refrain: only connect. Like Ila and Saajan in that film, here too Miloni and Rafi make a connection. Mumbai is a frantic, indifferent city – there is a running thread about the ghost of a man who committed suicide – someone says, latak ke bhi chain nahin milata Bambai main. In this frenzy, these two find a semblance of joy with each other. In a lovely scene, Miloni tells Rafi about the photo he took of her – woh ladki mujhse zyada kush lag rahi thi aur zyada sundar bhi.
Sanya Malhotra and Nawazuddin Siddiqui deliver astute performances. Ritesh, who also wrote the story, doesn’t allow us to really know Miloni. There are suggestions of a love for acting in school. But mostly we see her parents dictating her life while she remains submissive and subdued. Sanya brings alive Miloni’s inherent ache and Nawazuddin locates Rafi’s inherent decency. Pay close attention to the expressions in his eyes when he is near Miloni. There’s also Farrukh Jaffar as the irrepressible dadi – she’s terrific.
Photograph is Ritesh’s second film set in Mumbai and once again, the director captures the grimy beauty of the city. His frames and colors are striking – in once scene, Miloni is waiting at the bus stop and you see her purple dupatta against the red bus stop and the green moss of the walls. DoPs Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins tastefully capture the melancholy.
And yet, Photograph doesn’t come together as beautifully as The Lunchbox did. The screenplay isn’t as sharp or insightful. In places the film is so quiet that it feels inert. I’m not going to lie – I did get impatient. And yet the next morning, I found myself thinking about Rafi and Miloni. There is a tenderness that stays with you. I’m going with three stars.