Review: Photograph, an understated tale of forged companionship

The promise is one of sunshine and indelible memories. “When you see this photo a few years down the line”, Rafi, a struggling street photographer (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who stations himself at the Gateway of India, declares, “you will witness the same sunlight caress your face. The very same breeze that rustles through the curls of your hair now will blow even then, and the sound of thousands of excited tourists will ring in your ears forever.”

It’s a picture-perfect, albeit practiced, pitch honed by years and years of shutter-buggery; armed with a Nikon camera and a whirring contraption that prints out photos long after the click of a button, the glib talker goes about his life’s avowed mission—to make people look happier and more photogenic than they would normally consider themselves.

What is Photograph about?

The subject of this photo is Miloni, a young Gujarati girl and chartered accountancy student who gets herself crowned, quite literally. Frequently marked out on the city’s billboards as the standout pupil in her coaching class, her monotonous, closeted existence is mostly restricted to scribbling notes both at home and in class while learning about limited liability partnerships and what goes into the making of an auditor.

There’s a lot more to this fascinating character than she lets on, and you sense that this is a girl that desperately wants to break free, even though she frequently, and sportingly, smiles with the grace that’s almost symptomatic of a Ritesh Batra heroine.

Performances that lift the story higher

Sanya Malhotra is, to my mind, one of the finest Hindi actresses of this generation, her eyes a relentless cesspool of emotion; a scene where she continuously fidgets with her pen, all the while subconsciously mirroring her own unspoken turmoil, is just one standout moment in a performance that boasts of many.

The man behind the lens is used to sleeping on a floor. A migrant from Uttar Pradesh with a trapdoor in his home—à la Murad in Gully Boy—Rafi is quick on the draw, a person who knows what it takes to survive in this unforgiving city and haggles to make ends meet. Siddiqui is reliably brilliant as ever, as is his grandmother, a strong-willed matriarch (played by Farrukh Jaffar) who is thrilled at the prospect of him begetting fair-skinned progeny.

She is as surprised as the rest when she first comes to know of this unlikely match, and she bludgeons her opinion across with an all-encompassing tactlessness: if Miloni were to be a rasgulla, then her grandson would be a gulab jamun.

Hits and misses

Photograph is Ritesh Batra’s second feature film set in Mumbai, and we get an entire array of visuals—from seagulls to frenetic traffic signals to vada pav—that underline the inherent romanticism of the city that never sleeps.

Like the trawlers that so frequently dot the skyline of the city’s beaches, this poignant film bobs up and down with a leisurely, melancholic peace of its own. Not everything here is perfect: the overall premise of the story is, at first, a little difficult to buy into, and the director does tend to paint his film in overtly subtle strokes.

A cameo by a recognised actor towards the end feels gratuitous and unnecessary as well; these are, however, minor niggles in a beautifully composed, lyrical film that undeniably has its heart, and its camera, in the right place.

Batra retains an enduring fascination for Hindi movies of a bygone era and evergreen melodies make their presence felt on more than one occasion in the film. As it turns out, both Lata Mangeshkar and Nitin Mukesh play a huge role in the eventual christening of the film’s heroine. “Naam bhi bahut pyaara hai,” Rafi finds himself writing in a letter to his grandmother, though he is all at sea when it comes to actually conjuring up one; it is only when a song from a Manmohan Krishna film plays on the transistor that he chances upon a suitable name for his heroine: Noorie.

It’s a name to be enamoured by—a two-syllabled delight that speaks of women who bring light into other people’s lives—and we understand why Rafi is so smitten by his choice. A word is worth a thousand pictures as well.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Shreehari H is a lover of films and an even greater lover of writing.

Movie ReviewNawazuddin SiddiquiPhotograph