Synopsis – A struggling street photographer in Mumbai, pressured to marry by his grandmother, convinces a shy stranger to pose as his fiancée. The pair develop a connection that transforms them in ways they could not expect.
My Take – The thing about coming of age dramas are that due to their too many underlying themes they usually end up been given a miss from the general audience. Mainly, as at the end of the weekend, one just prefers to sit and relax, instead of steering up emotions which may be hard to get by once the following busy week starts again. However, back in 2013, British Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra‘s film, The Lunchbox, a coming of age drama, which used a crowd-pleasing setup with a heartwarming Indian twist, ended up bowling over everyone, from festivals to the domestic box office, due to its surprising simplicity and charm, hereby setting up a strong example for its genre.
Now, six years later, director Batra returns to Mumbai with yet another film about two lonely souls. And like his first feature did, this one too deals with that quintessentially feeling of being lost in a sea of people. This is also one such film that attempts to showcase potent love blossoming amidst all odds. In the age of internet and mobile apps, the film comes across as a refreshing change, as the story makes limited use of present day technology paraphernalia. As one would expect, it sincere enough, easily digestible, curl-up-on-the couch film you wouldn’t mind watching when you have nothing else to do.
However, amidst all that, it can’t be denied how the film fails to transcend its setup and lacks the virtues that made the Irrfan Khan-Nimrat Kaur‘s epistolary romance palatable to a global audience. While this is a fairly standard Mumbai-set slice of life drama, with enough humor and pathos, here, director Batra seems to be lacking a firm grip on his story as it starts to get away from him midway through the film, making it hard for anyone to really get lost in it.
In its whole run time the film plays around being so ambiguous and then in the end it leaves us without a climax. But if there is one thing that makes this film still very watchable, it would be Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra‘s performances.
The story follows Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a struggling street photographer, who is forced to live an austere lifestyle due to his deceased parent’s debts, and makes a living by urging tourists and locals to take snapshots in front of Mumbai’s Gateway of India for a small fee. One such approach introduces him to Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a demure young woman who comes from an archetypal Indian middle-class family.
In school, Miloni was interested in acting, but due to her parent’s pressure she is now enrolled in coaching in order to become a certified Chartered Accountant. One day, in an effort to escape from her overbearing mother and sister, she accepts Rafi’s sales pitch to click a picture, but runs away without paying him once her mother calls her out.
While Rafi remains discomposed by her behavior, his biggest trouble remains his ailing grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar), who wants to see her grandson married post-haste. And in an effort to sidetrack her shows her a photo of Miloni, whom he claims to be his fiancee.
However, when his grandmother, being the persistent woman she has always been, insists on meeting her, Rafi is forced to track down and convince Miloni to play the part, to which she gladly agrees, as it provides her an escape from her unhappy domestic life and perhaps offers an opportunity to test out her acting chops again. Despite their differences in religion, class and economic background, their relationship deepens as they drop their defenses and share their hopes, sorrows and insecurities.
The pretend relationship for mutual benefit is an overused trope in romantic comedies that rarely reaps rewards, but Batra being clearly a filmmaker keyed into the simple pleasures of life invites us to luxuriate in them throughout his film. And it works for the most part as there’s an authenticity to the film’s two lead characters and their personal histories. Even their conversations have an understated intimacy that most rom-com pairings lack. The film never dramatizes Rafi and Miloni’s struggles and does not create a big deal out of it. Their hopes and dreams are expressed through seemingly throwaway lines.
The initial portions have some real crowd-pleasing moments, particularly the ones involving Rafi’s grandmother, a character who is less uptight than Miloni’s city-bred parents. Her snarky comebacks for Rafi’s words are an absolute delight. The initial portions work mainly because of the films less hurried pace, letting us be a part of the proceedings without any interruptions.
However, the problem with the film is that while the look might be retro, the events in the film are not, and the two elements when put together seem unsuitable. The foundation of the main connection is cinematically flawed, played with some sly camera work that is apparent in plenty of sequences further in the film, especially the latter portions, with the ones involving a dead tenant’s spirit (Vijay Raaz) and the really unwanted moment between Miloni and her creepy teacher (Jim Sarbh). It really deviates from the life-like tone set by the film’s first half that is until an amusing subplot involving a now-defunct soft drink brand kicks in all leading to an open ended unnecessary climax.
There are long silences. And there’s a lot of repetition, which occasionally goes somewhere (the softy-kulfi bit builds to a nice end), but more often hangs heavy. Here, director Batra really takes his time, which costs the film somewhat—he’s an observant, sensitive director, but not yet a consummate enough stylist to hold one’s attention visually. While it is certainly consistent to have every scene register in roughly the same subdued tone, one wishes director Batra dug a bit deeper into Miloni’s arc.
Her affectation for Rafi is one conveyed through few words and knowing eyes, exemplified in an early encounter on a bus where not an utterance is exchanged. As their relationship blossoms, director Batra impressively doesn’t provide the expected narrative catharsis, yet even with what we’re given, there’s ultimately not a great deal of emotional impact to be felt. Miloni’s parents also feel very one note in terms of characterization.
It is fitting that his fourth feature also prominently features the Gateway of India. A touristic view of Mumbai plagues the film over its 108-minute duration, from its character sketches and use of locations to its understanding of the way class and religion operate in Mumbai. And taking full of advantage of their widescreen frame, cinematographer Ben Kutchins captures the frenetic chaos of Mumbai with all of its consuming traffic, sun-dappled streets, and tightly-packed food carts.
The precise sound design also bolsters the palpable feel of the location. As Miloni receives jewelry from Rafi’s grandmother, the sounds of shimmering metal in her hands transitions beautifully to it rustling in the bag as she walks down the street. It’s this attention to detail that makes up for a story that can’t help but feel slightly inert.
However, what does stand out is the brilliance of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who is now without a doubt a master of his craft and conveys unsaid emotions effortlessly. Sanya Malhotra is also quite impressive as the watchful and reserved class topper whose life isn’t her own, but who knows more than she lets on. With her quiet expression, blinks and nervous clicking Malhotra makes sure to make us feel her vulnerability and emotions, making way for an emotional connection with her character.
Farrukh Jafar also manages to makes the story more engaging than it really is. In supporting roles, Akash Sinha and Saharsh Kumar Shukla, are both excellent, but Sachin Khedekar and Jim Sarbh are wasted. On the whole, ‘Photograph’ is filled with intriguing and hopeful moments yet ends up being an unsatisfying melancholic tale.
Directed – Ritesh Batra
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 108 minutes