Photograph is an independent Indian film with a supported release by the major UK arthouse distributor Curzon. That makes it unusual and you’d have to go back to the same writer-director Ritesh Batra’s 2013/4 release The Lunchbox to find another. At HOME in Manchester, Photograph was introduced by Dr Omar Ahmed in relation to HOME’s upcoming ‘Not Just Bollywood‘ (3rd edition) season in September. I think that the audience for this screening was lucky to hear Omar’s intro as he helped to place the film in context and to think a bit more about it than some of the US/UK reviewers seem to have done since its appearance at Sundance earlier this year.
I’d seen some lukewarm reviews and was a little worried about what would unfold but I soon became engaged and I found the film low-key but moving and possibly a different kind of film than I was expecting. After The Lunchbox, Batra made two English language films adapted from novels. I haven’t seen either of them but I wondered why he did this (i.e. why he couldn’t make the films he wanted to make in India). On his return to India he brought back with him his film editor John F. Lyons who has worked on all four of his films and other creatives who I assume he met during his UK/US production periods. Photograph is again his own script and it has strong connections to The Lunchbox. For me the ‘feel’ of the film is similar to that which I get from diasporic or exilic directors such as Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta. There is one direct connection with other recent Indian independents and that is the actor Geetanjali Kulkarni who also appears in Sir (2019), Court (2014) and Hotel Salvation (2016).
Nawazuddin Sidiqqui is the other link back to The Lunchbox. This time he takes the role occupied by Irrfan Khan in the first film – an older single man who will gradually fall in love. However, this man has less standing than Irrfan’s character and he also has a family history to contend with. Rafi is a Muslim from a village in Uttar Pradesh and he has been in Mumbai for many years, earning money to send home to pay family debts and to provide a dowry for his sisters. He works as a street photographer, snapping the tourists around the ‘Gateway of India’. One day he snaps a pretty girl who dashes off before he can print out the photo (and before she can pay him). When he hears through the local village grapevine that runs through his Mumbai district that his grandmother (‘Dadi’) is threatening to stop taking her medicine unless he marries, he decides to send the photo to Dadi, claiming it is his new girlfriend ‘Noorie’. But then, of course, Dadi wants to visit Mumbai to meet the girl . . .
In many ways, Rafi has set up a classic rom-com scenario. He’ll have to find the girl again and convince her to play a role and the two of them will be brought together under pressure and . . . But although this plot will play out, Batra doesn’t necessarily take it in the expected directions and he sometimes refuses to offer us the expected scenes. If a Hollywood or Bollywood romance is what audiences expect to see they will be disappointed by the ellipses in the narrative, by the periods of introspection and by the general slow pacing. None of this bothered me since my interest was in the two central characters and their backgrounds. The young woman in the photograph is Miloni played by Sanya Malhotra who first came to attention in Dangal (2016) – a film I must watch. She is very well cast and gives a beguiling performance as the daughter of a middle-class Gujarati Hindu family who expect her to become a chartered accountant and to marry a successful graduate. She is literally the ‘poster girl’ for a small private accountancy college and the top student. But she feels trapped by her family’s expectations. She’d always enjoyed drama at school and perhaps that is why ‘playing the girlfriend’ attracts her.
One convention that Batra does follow is to provide the two leads with a supportive ‘crew’. Rafi lives in a communal room with other men from his district and Dadi (a terrific performance by 86 year-old Farrukh Jaffar) will find a space for herself in the same room. By comparison, Miloni’s family is wealthy enough to have a live-in maid/cook/housekeeper (played by Geetanjali Kulkarni) who can advise her about the village man and will be discreet. The romance can only be tentative at first and its prospects in the long-term are not good. Religious differences and social class differences do not make Western-style romances straightforward (not that they do in the US or UK either in some circumstances). Batra offers some good examples of how their daily lives differ and he uses a favourite cinema as a meeting place for the couple. It endlessly replays the same films from the 1980s (a similar nostalgia to the TV soaps of the period in The Lunchbox), but in an environment that Miloni finds a little stressful. Omar stressed in his introduction how the Bombay (rather than ‘Mumbai’) in the film is not the Bombay of Bollywood gangster films nor is it only a place of poverty and desolation – or of the glossy modernity of the ‘New India’. Bombay has always been an almost mythical place for migrants from other parts of India, especially in the Hindi cinema social films of the 1940s and 1950s. A more recent tradition of Bombay ‘street films’ takes an almost documentary interest in the lives of the city’s poorer inhabitants, e.g. in a film like Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (India-UK 1988). Photograph shares its starting point with that film – the tourists at the Gateway of India – but it uses the street as a setting for a different kind of narrative, one which still represents the struggle between tradition and modernity, but which which also finds stories at the micro level in the interactions of characters.
Batra uses Bombay’s streets, cafés and food stalls carefully. As in The Lunchbox, buses, trains and traditional taxis are important meeting places in which Miloni is taken out of her comfort zone. Significantly it is a food stall that creates one of the moments of distrust by Miloni’s parents about their daughter’s behaviour. Batra also introduces an eccentric story about the history of Indian soft drinks. We see Miloni drinking ‘Limca’, an Indian brand of lemonade/lime now owned by Coca Cola and she tells Rafi that as a child she liked a now defunct brand of Cola. I take this as a signifier of the old Bombay, before the changes of the 1990s brought in American-style fast foods and shopping malls. But some things don’t change. Dadi comments on how dark her grandson’s skin is and he begins to use lightening cream. I think it is also important that at the beginning of the film we see Miloni being taken by her mother to buy clothes. We recognise that Miloni wants something else and throughout the romance we see her wearing quite simple outfits that seem more ‘natural’ and which I thought suited her much better than the more showy costumes of Bollywood films.
Both Rafi and Miloni have times when they sit in their rooms contemplating their futures but in Rafi’s case we get a fantasy sequence in which he discusses his current situation with another migrant from earlier times. I liked this and it worked for me. I’m not sure everything works in Photograph but overall Batra creates a distinctive vision of Bombay through the creation of a ‘feel’ and ‘tone’ for Rafi’s community and Miloni’s family. He presents a unique Bombay story rather than fulfil genre expectations. He’s aided by terrific performances from his two leads and from Farrukh Jaffar. I would very much recommend this film to anyone prepared to be open to Batra’s ideas.