Photograph – Film Review
by Diana Perez Garcia
Written and Directed by Ritesh Batra
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar
Opens on Friday Aug 2nd
The road to marriage has been a central theme in literature ever since Jane Austen famously proclaimed the need of well-to-do bachelors to procure a wife in the opening to Pride and Prejudice. Austen was shrewd enough to realise that the longing for and pursuit of a partner could provide unrivalled material for character studies while simultaneously exposing the intricacies of a social, economic and class system. She thus managed to filter complex relational networks through individual consciousness, unravelling the entanglement of our existential yearnings and our social limitations. This is arguably the task of any novelist worth their salt but, lured by the epic and spectacle we associate with cinema, film makers often turn their backs on the fine grain of seemingly unremarkable lives. Six years after the release of his critically acclaimed debut, The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra continues to buck this trend, with another finely observed, thoughtful, and nuanced portrayal of the unexpected romantic relationship between two such seemingly unremarkable inhabitants of the city of Mumbai: struggling street photographer Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and shy accountancy student Miloni (Sanya Malhotra).
At the beginning of Photograph, Batra sparsely but effectively establishes the two very different worlds Rafi and Miloni inhabit before a chance encounter brings them together. Miloni is first seen buying fabric for a sari with her mother and sister. She is largely silent, diffident though in familiar company, as if she were a blank canvas for her relatives’ needs or desires. The fabric is chosen with her barely uttering a word. Batra’s camera lingers on Miloni’s face as her mother and sister arrange for the purchase to be delivered. The scene subtly combines self-absorption and alienation: this is a young woman perched on the threshold to adulthood in a culture where autonomy can only exist as a negotiated compromise with one’s elders. In the background, Miloni’s mother’s voice can be heard shrilly informing the shop assistant that “we won’t be paying in advance; we are not stupid.” There are no throwaway lines in Batra’s script and an attitude to life is revealed in this one: the supercilious financial vigilance of the prosperous in a city full of beggars and hustlers.
Rafi is just such a hustler and he spends his days trying to persuade tourists to have their picture taken in front of the monumental Gateway to India in exchange for a few rupees, printing the picture for them so that the moment “won’t be gone forever”. At the close of a business day Rafi sends most of his wages to his grandmother in the country (Farrukh Jaffar in a formidable performance) and then meanders through a labyrinth of street stalls in the company of a friend to then return to the room he shares with five other men for a round of banter and spirits before bedtime. Rafi is tied to a pledge to recover the family home that was lost after his father’s death and the gratitude he owes to his impoverished grandmother for raising him and his sister. His debt is financial and emotional and we understand that he will never be able to fully pay it in spite of his considerable efforts as a street photographer.
It is this occupation however that brings Rafi in contact with Miloni as he persuades her to have her picture taken when he spots her aimlessly wandering in front of the monument. Batra’s choice of the Gateway to India as the backdrop for this chance encounter speaks of his literary sensibility as a scriptwriter and director: here are characters on the brink of a fundamental transformation. This visual trope also resonates with Batra’s ability to filter the complexities of Indian culture and society through this most intimate story.
Photograph may very well function as a gateway to India and it will shed light on many aspects of this vast and complex country for the Western viewer. In a culture where marriages are still arranged with financial and social considerations in mind, the encounter between Rafi and Miloni must of necessity be the product of chance because they are separated by origin, religion and class. Rafi is disparaged by others a number of times on account of his dark complexion, suggesting, not merely race but also class prejudice in a country where so many must earn a livelihood working in the unforgiving sun all day long.
Batra’s script is finely woven, full of significant but naturalistic detail: after their first encounter, Miloni lingers on Rafi’s mind not just because she is an attractive young woman but because she has walked away with her photograph without paying him, forever lost in a sea of tourists. This is of course the reverse of Miloni’s mother’s caution to the shop assistant at the fabric shop; and Rafi’s trust in Miloni, which recurs in a later encounter, serves to separate him from the family she struggles to please.
When Rafi hears that his grandmother has stopped taking her medicine, pained by his inability to procure a wife, he reprints the photograph of Miloni, encloses it in a letter, and turns her into his fictitious fiancée. When in response to his news, his grandmother announces an imminent visit to the city, Rafi is forced to find Miloni and ask her to pose as his girlfriend and meet his grandmother. Her acceptance is the prelude to an unlikely relationship, one that opens Miloni’s eyes to a world outside her safe middle class milieu, and the viewers’ to the intricacies of a country at the crossroads of tradition and modernity fast transitioning from a rural to an urban economy. One of Batra’s supporting characters sums up his preoccupation with the fading past when he describes India as “a big country with a small memory.”
Much like Rafi’s own pictures, Batra’s carefully composed and engagingly acted film functions not just as a vivid snapshot of his characters but as a portrait of the teeming city of Mumbai as an emblem for an endlessly fascinating country. Like all great pictures, Photograph captures a moment in his characters’ and his country’s life that is simultaneously revealing and mysterious.