Photograph review: A tiny cameo by Vijay Raaz illustrates what this film needed more of: a touch of whimsy, a kind of magic.
An early scene in Photograph shows two men sitting in a cafe, discussing their children’s education. One of the men points to something up on the other side of the road, on top of a building opposite them. Says that is his daughter, class topper. There’s so much pride and possessiveness in that statement. Not to be outdone, the other father says his son is preparing for an MBA abroad. Things are perfectly balanced now – class topper vs MBA abroad. It is decided, and all that is left now is for the girl and the boy to meet and wedding bells to ring.
Meanwhile, other decisions are being made for the submissive girl. A mother and two daughters are at a store, picking out clothes for the young girl. Yellow, orange, pink. The mother has decided it will be pink, the elder daughter agrees and the tailor has been given instructions. It’s all fixed. Even as the girl waits a moment longer, looking at herself in the mirror with the yellow outfit.
That girl is Miloni Shah (Sanya Malhotra). Things are always decided for her, by others. From how she spends the time to what she studies, to whom she marries and what clothes she wears. At the family dining table, they talk of a time when Miloni was in school and liked to act in plays. This little interest of hers is indulged by her family, but only for a while. When it seems like she may really be good at acting, the family has a quiet word with the school authorities “Let her concentrate on her academics also…,” and so Miloni is the class topper at a private coaching center for Chartered Accountants.
Meanwhile, Rafi Bhai (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) ekes out a living taking photos of people at Mumbai’s Gateway of India, lives in a little metal and wood house in one of the city’s many slums – a house he shares with five other people and a ghost. He has a grandmother back in his village in UP, to whom he sends money every month. The grandmother is more of a mother, she has raised him and his two sisters almost single-handedly, and clearly Rafi has a lot of love and some fear and respect for his Dadi.
And so when Dadi threatens that she won’t take her meds till Rafi agrees to get married, Rafi worries. He has certain views about love, relationships, marriages. To agree to marry someone now for his grandmother’s sake – will it work for him?
And because this is Mumbai (then called Bombay) and therefore things will need to happen, Miloni and Rafi meet.
Photograph is written and directed by Ritesh Batra and produced by Amazon Studios, Poetic License, Film Science and Pola Pandora. The film stars Sanya Malhotra, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Farrukh Jaffar, and others. The cinematography is by Tim Gillins and Ben Kutchins, and the film was edited by John F Lyons. The music is by Peter Raeburn.
The film premiered at the Sundance Festival and Berlin Film Festival and released in theatres yesterday. However, it is going against Marvel Studio’s Captain Marvel, and a bunch of other more popular films, and seems to have fewer takers. Till the opening credits rolled, I was almost the only person in a large cinema hall, and so I could really sit back and let the film wash over me. There is something to be said about watching a nice film unfold over you in absolute quiet.
Miloni, a 20-year-old student, is at the Gateway of India, lost in her own thoughts when Rafi says he will take a photo of her against the monument. This is the first time they meet. Rafi says this photograph will last her, always remind her of the day’s sunlight and happiness, the crowds, and the excitement. He pitches a good pitch, and Miloni reluctantly agrees. She is moved by the photo Rafi takes. However, she leaves without paying him. And Rafi too is haunted by the young woman he’s just photographed. So later, when his Dadi demands he gets married, he sends her the photo of Miloni, tells her they are in love and hopes it will buy him some time. However, an excited Dadi actually arrives in Mumbai (or Bombay then) and wants to meet Miloni, whom she knows as Noori, a hat-tip Rafi, and the director pay to an old Bollywood song.
And so Rafi tries to get in touch with Miloni and asks her to play along to his wild conjecture. And for reasons her own, she agrees. At that moment, she begins living a double life and begins deciding things for herself.
Divided by class, religion, environment, education and everything else possible, the Miloni-Rafi romance is a mirror of all such romances in Bombay, Tamil and other cinemas of India. The rich girl-poor boy trope has been mined for generations, giving us some great, and some not so great films. The crux of most of those films is in finding out if the lovers unite despite all these hurdles. And what happens when they do. However, in Photograph, that is not spelled out for us. Ritesh Bhatra leaves the ending open, while also hinting at what might actually happen. And he does it while calling back to all of old Bombay films, in an old Bombay theatre.
Farrukh Jaffar as Dadi, Geetanjali Kulkarni as Rampriya, the Shahs’ in-house cook and general help are the truly stand-out characters for me. Rampriya especially, in her quiet way, gives Miloni both encouragement to pursue her romance, and caution about her life. She is the female friend every young woman needs, even if she has to call a girl 15 years her junior, didi.
They say photography allows you to step into the same river twice, that a photograph reminds you of the good and the profound moments in your life. That also is the pitch Rafi uses to get his customers.