Ritesh Batra has an unmistakable love for the past. That longing filled his debut, The Lunchbox, which had several nostalgic stamps: the title track from Saajan (1991), clips from the TV show Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (1984), and a vital realisation in the climax, materialising through a literal whiff from the past.
Even his subsequent films, The Sense of an Ending (2016) and Our Souls at Night (2017), had poignant overlaps between the past and the present. It only feels natural then that the male lead of his latest, Photograph, is a photographer: someone who freezes time.
Photograph opens to Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a street photographer standing near the Gateway of India, urging passersby to get their pictures clicked. Siddiqui’s character in The Lunchbox (Irrfan Khan’s cheerful, optimistic junior) was, in Batra’s words, a “stand-in for Bombay”.
The street photographers, similarly, legitimise the ultimate Mumbai aspiration. They tell us that our experience in the city is significant, that it deserves to be archived.
Unlike a video clip, a photograph cannot provide context. Like a heady love story, a photograph can only live in the moment. So what if the city beat you one more day, a pleasant photo, demanding only a flash of smile, can revise history. Besides, a solo photo near a famous landmark has a film-like quality: It captures us as heroes we want to be in our stories.
The ultimate deceit of photography is the cruelest trick of Mumbai.
It is ironical then that the documentarian here, Rafi, is an outsider. He’s from Ballia, a small town on the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border. Living in a one-room dwelling, with four friends, his locality is home-like: the shopkeepers know him, and they’re inquisitive about his life. That, at the moment, just means one thing: his grandmother insisting on marriage.
Rafi meets Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a young girl preparing for a chartered accountancy exam, in a chance encounter. He clicks her picture, and she forgets to pay him. Rafi wants to meet her again. The intention is two-fold: to get his money and, given that his nagging grandmother will visit Mumbai in a few days, ask Miloni to meet her as his girlfriend. But Miloni and Rafi couldn’t be further apart. She’s educated, middle-class, and refined. Rafi calls her “madam”.
Miloni is a puzzle. We don’t know her desires. We can’t access her thoughts. Her father wants her to get married, but she’s probably not thrilled by the idea. When a suitor comes home for dinner, chatting with Miloni and her family in the living room, Batra renders them, through her point of view, out of focus. When Miloni feels anxious, her right foot shakes, while her facial expression remains unchanged. Hiding comes naturally to her.
These are impressive details, and Malhotra – debuting with Dangal (2016) and recently seen in Pataakha (2018) and Badhai Ho (2018) – is a fine actress. She brings to this performance a curious hesitation, intriguing and eluding us, elevating the film by her mere presence.
That’s not enough, though. We don’t know why she agrees to meet Rafi’s grandmother or, later, him. We don’t get her disenchantment with her family, either. We, of course, don’t want a character’s CV, but there’s a thin line between restraint and obfuscation. Batra errs towards the latter.
When Miloni befriends Rafi, she starts warming up to her domestic help, Rampyaari (Geetanjali Kulkarni). She makes small talk, asks her about her life in the village. We, too, find out more about her – that she’s a live-in maid, sleeps in the kitchen, and enjoys her time off at the beach. As if Rafi has stirred Miloni back to life, introducing her to a new India (and possibly a new self) hidden from her all along.
But again, what drives this sudden curiosity: love, guilt, class-consciousness? Is Miloni just another millennial who, fed-up of the constraints of the city and career, fantasises rebellion and escape? (She tells another suitor, in a café, that she wants to settle in a village. It’s difficult to ascertain whether she’s serious or trolling.) Joining the dots in a movie is a fascinating exercise. Each one of us, after all, leaves the theatre with a different film. But Photograph scatters its dots – some commit to a pattern, others lack unity.
It’ll be limiting, even unfair, to see Photograph from the lens of a conventional romantic drama. This isn’t a love story that is directly observed, rather reflected through someone else (grandmother, friends, cab driver) the old fashioned way.
It’s a fitting narrative choice, because like the filmmaker, the characters too are in the thrall of lost time: they enjoy old Hindi film songs; Rafi, in order to conceal Miloni’s religion from his grandmother, calls her Noorie, a hat-doff to the title track from the 1979 movie; Miloni fondly remembers her (and her grandfather’s) favourite soft drink, Campa Cola. But wistful sentimentality isn’t always the answer. It can also be a crutch – a polished way to be calculative – because a poignant peer into the past often gets an easy pass. There are enough scenes in Photograph which, due to their association with time, may leave you with a fuzzy feeling, but their close interrogation reveals an unfortunate vacuity.
Then there’s the city. Barring one ingenious scene, a comical encounter with a ghost (which could also qualify as morbid foreshadowing), the characters interact with Mumbai in trite ways. And that is the main problem with Photograph. Its recurring themes – nostalgia, class-divide, the portrait of a city – have been explored before (by either other directors or Batra himself).
“All films anyway have the same story,” Rafi tells Miloni at one point. In a more accomplished film, this would have felt like a statement.
Here, it sounds like an apology.