If one has studied the filmography of Ritesh Batra over the past decade, one would know what to expect out of Photograph. Like The Lunchbox as well as his two other previous films, Batra is interested in telling his story through a minimalistic plot, and rather find magic in moments framed in eternity. He is constantly in search of poetry – in evocative city landscapes, in internal moments of truth of his characters, in the calmness of the unstated, and in suddenly found connections between the most unlikely individuals. With Photograph, he has challenged his own template to extreme ends, taking his most sketchy plot to date – of an uneducated, struggling, aging, Muslim photographer trying to please his grandmother with a story that he is in a committed relationship with a brilliant, middle-class, pretty, young, Hindu girl from another world – and then creating an album sprinkled with moments of warmth, tenderness and understated charm between two strikingly different worlds.
Batra thrives in formlessness of relationships. In his world, the journey that the two individuals take is far more important than the destination. The start of those journeys are also often far more poetic than practical. Hence we do not question too hard why a young, brilliant, introverted girl agrees to play along to the story of a complete stranger she has only met once before, just like we did not question why a middle aged house-wife had decided to play the lunchbox game with a stranger many years ago. We know that the young girl wanted to be an actor as a child, but her family decided otherwise for her (like they keep doing even today). But is that enough for her to agree to be a part of a charade? Or is there something more that a rebel within her is seeking outside the bounds of her overprotected life? What is it that drives her to spend far more quality time with her housemaid than her parents, who is possibly a faceless entity to the rest of the family? Batra does not want to tell us any straight answers. He wants us to understand them in our own ways, and let the characters and their intangible bonds breathe through those interpretations, and define their innumerable possibilities.
Batra also thrives in using vivid imagery of daily everyday objects and places in creating unforgettable moments. We still remember the simmering flavors of all the food that would find their way into Ila’s lunchbox, or the nostalgic moments of togetherness that Saajan would spend with his wife while watching ‘Yeh jo hain zindagi‘. After Photograph, a lot of us are likely to crave for our nostalgic childhood memories of Campa-Cola. Of course, we won’t be as lucky to have someone take all the trouble to go get it for us as an expression of affection. Some of us might also take out the silver anklets from our lockers just to be momentarily thrilled with its enchanting tinkling and recall an attached memory. We might rewind our own stories associated with kulfis and baraf ka golas, and get sentimental about them. There is a chance that we will suddenly crave for the bhajias or the cutting chai from a past Monsoon night. Some of us might also yearn to visit a single-screen theatre after years to relive some long lost memories there, and rethink how similar or different have been our experiences of life been from ‘har film ki story to ek hi hoti hain‘. From a world of a million clicks and thousand Insta stories, Batra brilliantly transports us to memories far more personal and engraved deeply within than all the digital garbage we keep churning out over our social media footprint.
Batra is well aware of the tremendous fondness that The Lunchbox has created over years. And he wants to invoke parallels from the cult film in his new story to recreate a similar aura. While the colors of Photograph may slightly pale relatively in front of the flavors of The Lunchbox in the process, but the nostalgia is evoked in its full glory, in multiple instances across the story:
- Mumbai, a city on the run and thriving on energy, becomes a strong character in both his films. Surrounded by a world of strangers in moving buses, ferries, taxis, trains or on foot, Miloni and Rafi are in their own literal journeys to discover themselves and their fondness, just like Ila and Saajan were.
- At times, they are equally lost in themselves in spite of the hustle and bustle of their mundane workplaces – an overcrowded tutorial center, a prime tourist attraction of the city, or a lackluster office.
- They even dream of starting a new life and finding happiness in the most unlikely places – a village for Miloni is as obscure as Bhutan for Ila. And we only hope that their wings find their flight to get there.
- They all rejoice in the nostalgia of hindi film music. So just like Ila found a voice of her emotions for a certain Saajan echoing in ‘Mera dil bhi kitna paagal hain‘; ‘Aaja re o mere dilbar aaja’ gives Miloni her new found entity in Noorie, while Rafi’s heart beats in gratitude to the sounds of his legendary namesake crooning to ‘Tumne mujhe dekha hokar meherbaan‘.
- A ceiling fan and its association with life becomes an important motif in both the stories. In The Lunchbox, Aunty had narrated how her husband’s life had gotten linked to the moving blades of a fan. In Photograph, the inmates of a chawl constantly feel the presence of a life that had apparently given up on himself hanging from the same screeching fan.
- Ila had gulped several glasses of water to control her anxiety to meet Saajan in a restaurant few years ago. Miloni talks about her yearning for Campa-Cola and Rafi recounts his ritual with kulfi while sipping on their chai in another restaurant. They are possibly luckier in a way, at least they have found each other face to face to share some of their stories with, unlike Ila who had whined that ‘we forget things if we have no one to tell them to.‘
And then there are the performances, that are wonderfully restrained and deeply evocative at the same time to ensure that Miloni and Rafi will stay with us for long, in spite of their journey sometimes getting marred with typical cinematic leaps of faith of improbable chance meetings, or a bit of sluggishness in the editing table. Miloni is like the beating heart of the film – with the tenderness of a softy, and the sweetness of fragile sugar cubes, she injects the story with a delicately sweetened innocence. And Sanya Malhotra ensures that she pitches Miloni with perfected measures of sweetness without going overboard or bland at any time. Its a deeply internalized performance by Sanya, and Miloni’s brooding silence often speaks far more than a thousand words. With no control on her personal life and tired of seeing herself in the billboards of the city, she finds tremendous internal rejoice in that one bold, independent decision that she consciously takes to steal a few moments from her own life, albeit through a play-act. Miloni confesses that she feels more happy and more beautiful as she lives out Noorie, and Sanya brings that to life on screen brilliantly. Her tentativeness with Rafi feels as natural as her comfort with dadi, and her peaceful moments of bonding with her observant and empathetic housemaid (a brilliant Geetanjali Kulkarni) or her finding internal courage to say an emphatic no to her teacher (a well nuanced Jim Sarbh) wonderfully invoke the multiple hidden shades of her character.
The terrific artist that Nawazuddin Siddiqui is ensures that he never overpowers the tenderness of Miloni. It is a brilliantly nuanced performance from Nawaz and one can see that through the smiling eyes of Rafi whenever he is with Miloni, who has otherwise long forgotten his tirchhi smile in the daily grinds of life. Rafi sells dreams of moments frozen in time through well-rehearsed lines of chehre ki dhoop and baalo me hawa, both of which have no existence in the ghetto he lives in; and Miloni suddenly becomes the metaphor for these non-existent luxuries in his life. Only Nawaz could have made the understated longing and charm of Rafi so touch and feel real. I so wish that the other directors also explore this tender side of Nawaz as delicately as Batra has done twice in a row now.
And then there is the brilliant Farrukh Jaffar playing the dadi, who is possibly more life than all the other characters put together in the film. Patriarchy runs in her blood, but so does love for her grandchildren. She wants to express her love through vibrant colors of orange, through the tinkling rhythms of anklets, and even through her non-stop chatter, and we can always sense the maturity with which she will eventually be able to handle the truth. No wonder, she is so endearing to everyone, including the group of wonderful and compassionate roommates that Rafi lives with. Akash Sinha and Saharsh Kumar Shukla leave a mark even in their small roles, while Vijay Raaz adds life to the never-say-die spirit of hanging in there. In a contrasting world, we also spend moments in the more tensed and formal setup of Miloni’s household, and get an overall sense of her repressed happiness there in spite of the language barrier (yes English subtitles for the Gujarati dialogues were definitely missed). Overall, they all come together to be an integral part of Miloni and Rafi’s journey, blooming in the melancholic glee of a breathing city canvas beautifully captured by the camera of Ben Kutchins and Tim Gillis, interwoven with the minimalistic but hauntingly evocative soundscape created by Peter Raeburn.
Thank you Ritesh Batra for giving us Photograph. In a world constantly on the run and bustling in cacophony and drama, very few filmmakers can immerse us in the silent meditative tranquility of an ethereal relationship. The intangible tenderness of this bond feels poetically surreal, and is likely to remain frozen as a charming experience deep within our hearts for long. In years to come, we will often take out this album and relive the moments, and discover new expressions of affection and goodness hidden under layers of melancholy, empathy and everyday mundaneness of life.
For now, please go and get yourself photographed. Cinema doesn’t invoke such evocative poetry too often, cinema doesn’t talk to you like this too often when you watch it with a constant smile in your face. And when it does, it deserves all our love and attention.
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