Photograph Review: Ritesh Batra Continues His Romance with Melancholy and Mumbai

Bollywood

Photograph Review: Ritesh Batra Continues His Romance with Melancholy and Mumbai

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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umbai is a city that thrives as much on its performance of cultural diversity as it does on its enforcement of a pronounced class divide. Perennially stuck between tradition and progressiveness, it’s possibly the only Indian city that compels its inhabitants to be acutely aware of how much distance they must keep between themselves and others, just to survive. Like the lonely widower who was too guarded to let a young woman reaching out to him know just how much her letters – and her lunchbox – meant to him.

It’s this inherent characteristic of Mumbai that Ritesh Batra exploits in Photograph, a rich coming-of-age tale dressed in the oldest romantic narrative in Hindi cinema: Is the connection between two strangers a product of class segregation or a victim of it?

Photograph marks Batra’s return to writing and directing a Hindi feature film six years after The Lunchbox. Its protagonists are two immigrants: Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a Muslim street photographer from Uttar Pradesh who makes a living off photographing tourists visiting the Gateway of India and Miloni (an electrifying Sanya Malhotra), a CA topper whose educated, upper-class Gujarati family’s autocratic upbringing leaves her with stilted dreams.

Their class, religion, and aspiration distances them. Rafi lives in a dingy one-room chawl that he shares with four other men. She has her own room with a maid, Rampyaari (Geetanjali Kulkarni) dedicatedly tending to her at all hours. He wears chappals and Miloni wears sandals (Batra curiously uses shots of feet to highlight social standing). While she obsessively works toward becoming a Chartered Accountant, Rafi’s dreams are edited according to his class: If he’d continued his education, he might have become a compounder. And yet, they still share a similarity: Both of them live their lives for others. Rafi mechanically goes about convincing tourists of the significance of capturing “the sun on their face” and “the wind in their hair” to pay off a long-standing debt and Miloni’s life is predestined by her familial expectations.

In the film, Rafi and Miloni stumble upon each other at Gateway of India, a landmark that has little patience for social stratification. Rafi urges Miloni to take a photograph and she agrees, in what feels like the first time she decides for herself. But before Rafi can hand her the processed picture, she disappears. When they meet again, it’s because Rafi expresses his needs: He hands her the photograph and asks her to pretend to be his fiance while his grandmother is in town.

Unlike those stories that unnecessarily hurry their characters to a crowd-pleasing ending, Batra chooses to do nothing more than just observe the two characters come of age.

It’s telling that the actual act of Rafi asking the question happens offscreen but Batra chooses to retain the scene where Miloni decides to play along. Even then, it’s not hard to detect his ruse: Like his roommate tells him, “She is fair, urban and way above your league. Who will believe that she chose to be with you?” His friend isn’t the only one pointing that out. The reminder of the social distance that they have to keep negotiating, is everywhere: It’s in taxi drivers striking up a conversation with Rafi, because they belong to the same class and Miloni’s room being a walking distance away from Rampyaari’s sleeping spot in the kitchen. That their coupling will always remain a victim of segregation is evoked in one passing moment: When Miloni’s professor (Jim Sarbh) misbehaves with her in public, Rafi can’t do anything other than just protest from a distance. In true Batra style, it’s followed by a shot of longing so tender, that makes a solid argument for the damaging isolation that accompany these archaic social structures.

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It’s admirable how Photograph constantly teases the mainstream template of the rich girl falling in love with the poor guy by stubbornly not cashing in on Rafi and Miloni’s connection.

Image Credits: Poetic License Motion Pictures

It’s admirable how Photograph constantly teases the mainstream template of the rich girl falling in love with the poor guy by stubbornly not cashing in on Rafi and Miloni’s connection, even though it doesn’t add up all the time. All Hindi star-crossed romances are designed to follow the same script, echoes Rafi in the film’s most thrilling moment. Unlike those stories that unnecessarily hurry their characters to a crowd-pleasing ending, Batra chooses to do nothing more than just observe the two characters come of age. After all, an ending for some, is a beginning for so many others.

This melancholic narrative decision is the most fascinating bit about Photograph. Batra lets us – after a few missteps – focus only on how Rafi and Miloni awaken a part of each other that they have long forgotten. In a scene, Miloni reveals to his grandmother that Rafi captured a version of her in the photograph that she couldn’t recognise. Yet it’s unclear whether Rafi’s presence pushes her to rediscover that person who wanted to become an actress or she was actually living that aspiration in that moment, by performing as “Noorie” for his grandmother. Either way, Batra doesn’t fully explain Miloni’s hesitations, which costs Photograph. Especially because, there’s rarely a doubt about Rafi’s intentions. It results in a nostalgic flight of fantasy – involving Campa Cola and an old Mumbai building – that is a sight to behold.

If The Lunchbox was about two strangers who find each other, Photograph is content with letting two strangers find themselves while finding their way toward each other. When that happens, as Photograph gently posits, the distance between the journey and the destination ceases to matter.

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