Photograph is Ritesh Batra’s fourth feature-length film, but only his second to not be adapted from a novel. The two adapted films, A Sense of an Ending and Our Souls At Night, are set in London and small-town America respectively. The two “original” stories – The Lunchbox and now, Photograph – are set in Mumbai. Batra’s own city. A place that becomes a book in his head even as it is simultaneously being converted for the screen. It is both poetic and strange, then, that a film named “Photograph” unravels like unhurried literature. It feels the most adapted out of the lot, with characters and decisions and situations that seem to stew in the pace and melancholy of a pre-understood, interpreted world. The images, though, are torn somewhere between being both lost and found in translation. Unlike The Lunchbox, you might end up hoping to read the pages that were never written about a film that beautifully – and, at times, meanderingly – subverts our perception of the oldest narrative in the books of Hindi cinema.
Photograph writes about Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a Muslim street photographer who works at the Gateway of India, trying to capture memories and stories of tourists within his frames; “the wind in your hair” and “light on your face” won’t come back like today, he pitches to them, romanticizing what is essentially a quick and dirty insta-picture. And Photograph writes about Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a shy, sheltered Gujarati girl – the kind you’d find traversing the coaching-class and residential lanes of Vile Parle East – who is too busy, too protected, to have her own story. She lives for others. Their fates collide in a typically literary leap of faith; Miloni has her picture clicked at Mumbai’s most famous landmark, only to leave before Rafi can process the image. It is her first act of ‘individuality,’ which is why she perhaps can’t go through with it. Left with just her photograph, Rafi uses it as the identity of an imaginary fiance to deflect the pressure of marriage enforced upon him by his visiting grandmother. “Noorie” is her name, he tells her; music (literally) to her ears. Like most Indians, he respects the old lady too much to be honest with her. It is not until one of his three chawl flatmates points out the basic flaw of his ruse that we start to recognize the soul of Batra’s film. “She is fair, urban, way above your league, who will believe that she chose to be with you?” he asks. By ‘league’ he means class, religion and all the other barriers that tend to define the timelessness of star-crossed romances. Which is to suggest that Rafi has, even before the advent of their story, framed their destiny within the frames of a time-worn tale. They might have to work backwards, in reverse, from posing to becoming: an interfaith version of the “old” hearts in Our Souls At Night.
When he finds her (again, leap of faith, in a sequence that might otherwise pass off as dangerous, especially with Siddiqui’s subdued gaze) and she decides to play along, the two feel their way through the trappings of the poor-boy-rich-girl template. There is no external influence here; it’s the hero and heroine who have to decide if they want to embrace the details of a blossoming love story in India’s allegedly most secular city. It’s Rafi who has to decide if he can live with taxi drivers – those from his “section” of society – sizing him up knowingly and condescendingly after seeing them together. Or with the corner shop owner looking at him as a “betrayer” of sorts. It’s Miloni who has to decide if she can relate to the world of her housemaid (the excellent Gitanjali Kulkarni) more than her that of her parents. They have the agency to do so, despite their circumstances. Most films thrive on the conflict of couples having to overcome society after falling in love; Photograph integrates the hues of that conflict into the “before” phase, in fact going so far as to present the falling as a necessary consequence of their differences. It’s almost like they know they might become the words of a book one day. That their story begins at The Gateway of India, a spot that symbolizes the gist of sociocultural diversity in one single image – two Indias jostle for attention; the five-star Taj Hotel is surrounded by the masses of everymen thronging the landmark – is a testament to the film’s slow-burning dichotomy.
One of the significant aspects of Photograph is the way Batra uses shot of feet – those with anklets, nervous tics, tiptoes to overhear adult conversations – to illustrate the anti-physicality of the film’s tone. Some secondary turns, especially the fleeting cameos of those like Jim Sarbh and Vijay Raaz, are a bit distracting to the elegant faceless-ness that Batra’s movies aim to achieve. But the reason Photograph really works, despite an airy premise, is the character of Miloni, and especially Sanya Malhotra’s evolved performance. Miloni speaks her first word more than 30 minutes into the film. She is more than just shy; she is a child who knows no better, yet to be exposed to the ways of the world, well on her way to being the robot of her parents’ academic dreams. Malhotra might have easily come across as cutesy and deliberately naive (a la Ameesha Patel in Aap Mujhe Achche Lagne Lage), but she is so convincing as the girl-rebelling-silently stereotype that we trust in her unusual decision to “try” his world. To doubt hers. Against better judgment. She was a good actress in school, we are told, and at some level, she treats her “Noorie” role as an extension of her suppressed childhood ambitions. Yet, this is not her version of wild or breaking free, but her version of who she truly can be. Maybe she is just testing her own worldviews.
There is no dramatic outburst or animosity towards her well-meaning parents, no scenes of existential dread and deep introspection; their routine taxi rides together are evidence of their inwardly personalities trying to come to terms with a fundamentally outwardly pursuit. In contrast to Nawazuddin, who is visibly trying to underplay his nobleman persona opposite a verbose granny, Malhotra becomes the dreamy-eyed participant that enables the film to embrace its quiet glances and gentle flights of fantasy. It aids the film in designing the “beginning” of the stories that usually go on to define the movies. The final moments take place in the lobby of a cinema hall, the one space of vacuum that separates stories from the people that come to see them. Here, humans are neither people or characters. They are at the cusp of both worlds without fully occupying either of them; they are in between the cameras and the words. Except, in Miloni, a girl “adapting” to storytelling’s most popular leitmotif, we feel the wind through the hair of Photograph, and the sunlight streaming across its face.