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.
There were just the two of us in Screen 15 of Bradford Cineworld for a lunchtime screening of Raman Raghav 2.0, the latest from Anurag Kashyap, the doyen of the ‘new’ Indian Cinema. But then, a release during Ramadan in Bradford is always going to be tricky. When the trailers for upcoming Bollywood and Punjabi blockbusters had finished my companion remarked: “I see that Indian cinema makes crap movies too.” I assured him that an Anurag Kashyap film was a different proposition – but then remembered that Kashyap’s earlier film, the 1960s noir with a starry cast Bombay Velvet (2015), which I didn’t see, had been an expensive flop at the Indian box office. But I needn’t have worried. Kashyap’s new film, for the ‘directors’ company’ Phantom Films (Kashyap is one of four partners along with director Vikramaditya Motwane) approaches some similar material with a much more realistic budget (around US$600,000). This time the film is being distributed by the major Indian company Reliance which has taken a 50% stake in Phantom Films. Again this raises questions about Kashyap’s ‘independent’ status, but the film looks and feels like an ‘Indian Independent’ film.
Raman Raghav was a serial killer who murdered 41 people, mainly ‘street-dwellers’, in Bombay in the 1960s. We are told this in the opening titles for Raman Raghav 2.0 – but then told that: “This film is not about that case.” Instead, Kashyap has constructed a modern-day story about a Mumbai killer which uses some of the ‘real life’ 1960s story elements. Bombay Velvet was so expensive partly because it sought to recreate Bombay settings from the 1960s. In the new film Kashyap restricts himself to a limited number of locations, several using specific run-down or abandoned areas in the conurbation. The camerawork by Jay Oza (who IMDB lists as coming from a TV background) uses shallow focus on several shots allowing Kashyap to stylise scenes and make more of his limited range of locations. Kashyap also reduces costs by sticking to a relatively small number of characters and, apart from Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead, actors with limited exposure.
Siddiqui has become a major figure in independent cinema following his roles in earlier films directed or produced by Kashyap and he is mesmerising in this new film, ‘holding’ the screen with his portrayal of the killer Raman. This character displays what might be typical traits of working-class Indian characters – an obsequiousness towards police interrogators masking a terrifying hardness beneath which we eventually recognise the cold calculating mind. The narrative includes several sequences where Raman has either given himself up or been arrested but for various reasons the police interrogation fails to uncover/comprehend/accept what has happened. With little more than a few props (a facial scar, requests for cigarettes) Siddiqui takes control. The police officer in charge of the investigation is Ragav, played by Vicky Kaushal, a handsome young actor who also appeared in Bombay Velvet. Here he spends much of the time with a beard and dark glasses, shielding himself and his drugs habit from his colleagues. As his character’s name suggests, Kashyap and co-scriptwriter Vasan Bala have turned the hunt for a serial killer into a psychological thriller in which ‘Raman Raghav’ has become ‘Raman and Raghav’. This takes us into a discussion of references, sources, influences.
The narrative is divided into chapters with titles that refer to either a character or a distinct narrative action. The Sister, the Hunter, the Hunted etc. are offered as chapter titles in presentation which resembles street signage – like white chalk on a black background or whitewash used for grocer’s display boards. For some critics this has recalled Tarantino, but it is also a nod towards classical storytelling of different kinds. The presentation of the titles reminded me of Se7en and Siddiqui does have the same kind of presence as Kevin Spacey. The Se7en parallels can be traced further but for me the Hollywood influence seemed to be Hitchcockian, especially around that idea that the investigator is locked into a relationship with the criminal. The detective may be becoming like the killer and that the killer is able to control the detective because of his weaknesses. The classic Highsmith/Hitchcock Strangers On a Train comes to mind as well as the ambiguous hero/investigators of Rear Window and Marnie. However, I stopped thinking about Hollywood during one interrogation scene in which Raman seemed to refer to the Ramayana. I’m grateful to the New Indian Express review by Aditya Shrikrishna which provides the way in to the analysis I was struggling to make. Shrikrishna actually begins by linking Raman Raghav 2.0 to Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan/Raavan (2010). Ratnam’s Tamil and Hindi versions of the same script met with a similar rush of uncomprehending social media comments which failed to grapple with what was a much clearer take on the Ramayana myth with contemporary characters in a contemporary setting. Now Kashyap might be suffering in the same way – with a genre film that offers much more than the thrills and chills, sex and violence offered by the mainstream.
If, like me, you have only a sketchy notion of what the Ramayana is about, it involves Rama and his wife Sita in an epic story that at one point involves Rama in a battle with Ravana in which Sita is threatened. Kashyap’s script is an inverse of this so that Sita, in the form of Simmy (former Miss India 2013, Sobhita Dhulipala), is the girlfriend of Raghav and a potential target for Raman. Shrikrishna in the New India Express review reads one scene in the film between Raghav and Simmy in an illuminating way and it occurs to me that two of the best sequences in the film are those in which Raman visits his sister Lakshmi who he hasn’t seen for years and the bedroom scene described by Shrikrishna. Dhulipala and Amruta Subhash, who plays Lakshmi, both do very well in difficult parts.
I’ve seen one review which describes the film as ‘vile’ and others that describe the women as ‘submissive/passive’ and criticise the lack of background given to the characters. I’m not sure the latter criticism is important in this kind of story which has no claim to realism or sociological treatise. It uses banal genre conventions but it is delving into dark questions about corruption. The scene in the sister’s apartment is genuinely terrifying but most of the time the actual killings are not shown. Instead we hear the sound of a heavy wheel wrench being dragged along the pavement and then the horrible sound of metal hitting flesh and bone. Hitchcock again? The film does have a soundtrack of techno music with some very strange lyrics at times. I would need at least one more viewing to say more about the music and overall sound design. I would tend to agree with Shrikrishna again in thinking that Kashyap’s quickly shot low-budget film has all the benefits of vitality – but perhaps it is sometimes just too clever? There was one moment in a chase sequence when I groaned out loud at one over familiar trick. Perhaps it was a joke. Even so, I would very much recommend Raman Raghav 2.0. Along with Suburra which I saw the next day, it helped me to find genre films with enough intelligence to restore my faith in popular cinema.
This is quite a useful trailer demonstrating some of the points made above. It refers to the film’s appearance at Cannes 2016 – Kashyap has found this useful in developing an international profile:
After a second viewing, my thoughts about The Lunchbox are beginning to crystallise. This is an Indian cultural product which ‘reads’ in some ways (primarily its cinematography and editing) like an American Independent or an international festival film. As one of my regular viewing colleagues said to me, it’s difficult to make out who the audience is intended to be. But it doesn’t seem to matter. The film has been a hit in India and in overseas markets. The narrative is ‘universal’ enough to enable UK audiences outside the South Asian diaspora to enjoy the film without ‘getting’ all the cultural references. Presumably the Indian audiences have become so used to American films that they find the presentation familiar. But there are critics, in India and in the West, who want to argue against The Lunchbox. I’ll explore some of these below, but first I’ll discuss the film as I read it.
The origins of the film are in writer-director Ritesh Batra’s preparations for a documentary about Bombay’s dabbawallahs – the 5,000 strong network of carriers who transport a home-cooked meal to office workers in the city each day. Batra told The Hollywood Reporter that he became more interested in the people at either end of the process, the woman at home and the man at work, and therefore constructed a fictional narrative around the “1 in a million” chance that a meal could be delivered to the wrong person. The two people involved in this mix-up don’t know each other. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a wife trapped in what appears as a loveless marriage and who is trying to attract her husband’s interest by making the best meals she can for his lunch. But the lunches are going to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widower who is considering retirement from his job in a government claims department. Saajan is used to the mundane food that arrives from a contract restaurant and Ila’s meals are a revelation. When the mix-up continues the two, recognising what has happened, begin to correspond and thus begin a tentative epistolary romance.
Batra tells us in the film’s Press Pack that Ila and Saajan are both ‘prisoners’. She lives in a middle class Hindu enclave with little contact with the world outside apart from through her small daughter and an older woman upstairs who we never see, but whose instructions and ingredients improve Ila’s cooking skills. Saajan lives in an old Christian district in Bombay – his family name Fernandes hints at a possible Portuguese heritage long ago. It was only on a second viewing that I noticed the print of the Last Supper on the wall behind the dining table of the family in the house opposite Saajan’s verandah. He is not a very friendly neighbour but he envies something about the lives of the local families, whose children play cricket in front of his house. Batra suggests that Saajan is trapped in the past. Eventually Ila and Saajan will find something in common in nostalgia for the Bombay of the 1980s and for the television serials and filmi music of the time.
Ila also has her mother in another part of the city who is caring for her sick husband, Ila’s father. The key third role in the film, however, is Shaikh, the younger man who is earmarked to replace Saajan. Shaikh is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and is, I think, misunderstood as a character by many Western reviewers. It’s a difficult role to play and Batra went out of his way to cast Siddiqui, arguably the current hot star of independent Indian cinema. Shaikh is a Bombay ‘survivor’, an orphan who has had to fight to make his way in the world. He appears as annoying, almost obsequious in his approach to Sajaan. Part of this is his display of exaggerated mannerisms and speech. (Saajan routinely speaks English at work but Shaikh, like Ila, mainly speaks in Hindi – I wish I could tell if any of the characters speak in Marathi.) Siddiqui is also quite short and the contrast when he stands next to the tall Irrfan Khan is marked. It is important to the narrative that we recognise that Shaikh is annoying – but also that he is genuine in his attempt to better himself and provide for his (future) family. He may lie about his background to help his advancement but his persistence finally begins to break down some of Saajan’s defences against the world. In short, Shaikh helps to humanise Saajan. Although we never see her, Mrs Deshpande, the ‘woman upstairs’ has a similar impact on Ila, though in a very different way.
My worry that the Western audience may not pick up all the cultural clues is based simply on my own experience. On first viewing, I sometimes found myself losing the narrative thread, partly because I was trying to think about aspects of the plot and therefore didn’t concentrate on the detail of what was happening on screen. It was only after I read the press notes and interviews and then watched the film again that it all made sense. Now the narrative seems straightforward. So why did I have problems? I did find Irrfan Khan’s accent for the English dialogue difficult to follow sometimes. I was also confused by some of the many journeys across the city – in buses, taxis, trains, tuk-tuks and Shaikh’s scooter. It certainly isn’t clear to the casual viewer that the three leading characters live in quite different districts, connoting social class, religion etc. Much of the cinematography covering these journeys uses a documentary approach and perhaps the film needs some conventional narrative devices to make these sociological distinctions clear? (Station names? Discussion of districts as places to live?) I certainly stumbled over one destination – Nasik. This is, I think, the third largest city in Maharashtra after Mumbai and Pune. No doubt less stressful than Mumbai, I’m still not clear why it is a place that Saajan might retire to. The confusion over journeys and destinations means that the film’s ending is ‘open’. I’ve seen some US reviews refer to a ‘feelgood movie’. I think that the film is certainly more optimistic than pessimistic about what might happen to the characters but I think the lack of a clear narrative resolution works against the usual meaning of ‘feelgood’ (a term I don’t like very much).
There is cricket in the film and plenty of train travel, but what about music? Music plays an important narrative role at two points, once with a reference to a particular song from a 1991 Hindi film and again in a more documentary style with the singing of a group of dabbawallahs. So the Indian cultural content remains but not the conventions of Indian popular cinema.
The Lunchbox was ‘launched’ successfully at Cannes in 2013 as part of the general celebration of Indian cinema. Crucially, it was then picked up for international distribution by Sony Classics. This meant that there was a marketing push across North America and subsequently in other territories where Sony sold on the rights to high-profile specialised cinema distributors. Indian films targeting diaspora audiences in the UK (and I assume other territories) are usually distributed by the UK offices of major Bollywood companies. They don’t therefore get discussed in mainstream UK media or placed before audiences outside the diaspora in specialised cinemas. The last significant release of an Indian independent film in the UK was Gangs of Wasseypur, but the distributor Mara Pictures, which describes itself as a ’boutique distributor’, did not have the muscle to promote its release properly. The Lunchbox has the backing of the UK’s premier specialised cinema brand Artificial Eye/Curzon. That has made a big difference to its chances of being seen.
So, what does it all mean? And how has the film been received? The best review of the film I’ve found is from the Indian critic Baradwaj Rangan. I read this review after I’d written the comments above and I agree with it 100%, especially the praise for Siddiqui and the analysis of the open-ended narrative. Most of the other reviews aim for a relatively simple acceptance of the pleasures of what is indeed a well-made film with quality performances (I was very impressed by Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan is always worth watching). However, it is a first feature and it isn’t necessarily the ‘best’ of the new independent Indian cinema. It is clearly linked to the work of diaspora filmmakers such as Mira Nair but it is more of a chamber-piece than The Namesake with Irrfan Khan and Tabu. As an ‘opening up’ of the debates which the film has started, I recommend this ‘Minority View’ on Dear Cinema from MK Raghavendra. I don’t agree with everything in his review but what he writes (and the comments he attracts) put the film nicely in perspective. One interesting question is how the director presents ‘nostalgia’ for Bombay in the 1980s and when the narrative is meant to be set. I haven’t been in the city since the 1980s and apart from the increase in traffic and the new cars it looked much the same as I remembered it. Sajaan’s office is piled high in papers with barely a computer in sight. I don’t remember seeing many mobile phones in use. These technologies are mentioned in the film and Ila’s no-good husband fiddles on his phone when he should be talking to her. But Raghavendra asks the reasonable question, why did Batra not allow his two leads to use mobiles? I think there are phone calls at various points but it is a good question. Would it present a problem for the script? (The negative comments on the film tend to blame the weakness of the script.) I did feel that watching Saajan trying to track down Ila by asking the dabbawallahs was rather like watching the father search for his bicycle in Bicycle Thieves. These might seem like trivial points but The Lunchbox, as the significant ‘breakout film’ for Indian independent cinema carries a burden of expectation. I think Raghavendra is partially justified in seeing the film as not being quite sure what it wants to be, caught between an observational documentary style and a rather contrived romance narrative structure.
The real danger is that Western critics will leap on the film as an example of the ‘real India’ – or the ‘real Indian cinema’ without the nuanced perspective the film requires. I’m saddened that this seems to have happened at Sight and Sound, the UK’s film journal ‘of record’. At least The Lunchbox got reviewed when most Indian films on release in the UK don’t (so much for recording UK releases). It’s good that the review went to someone other than the regular reviewer of Indian cinema but unfortunate that the person chosen either knows little about Indian cinema or simply chose to treat the film as a festival film on the American independent model. The review compares the film at one point with Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in terms of representing “contemporary Indian middle-class urban life”!
I hope now to see more recent Indian cinema and to return to The Lunchbox for some further thoughts a little later.