Photograph movie review: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra’s film is an outstanding love letter to the city of dreams. 4.5 stars

Photograph
Director: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra
Rating: 4.5/5

They say the camera never lies. This is, quite obviously, a lie. The camera is a tool of glorification, vilification and investigation as much as it is an instrument of accuracy. Ritesh Batra’s new film Photograph features a streetside photographer — one who sells the conceit that standing by a monument is itself monumental — and the film tells the story of a girl who allows her plainness to define her. One afternoon, a photograph flatters her. The lie is as white as the back of a picture.

As pictures go, this one looks exceptional. Cinematographer Ben Kutchins shoots Mumbai by frequently composing frames that look like still photographs. It is a film smitten with the city, capturing the round central counters of the General Post Office with a lovely aerial shot, reminiscent of the way we’d seen the Library Of Congress in All The President’s Men. As the girl surprised by her own picture would attest, it is indeed all about the beholder.

Watch the Photograph trailer here:

Her name is Miloni — meaning ‘achiever’ — and she is a student so good that her picture is on the hoarding of a coaching institute, complete with a clip-art crown on her head. Yet she has never been made to feel special. She is taken aback by the new picture, passing it around to students minding the Ps and Qs of Chartered Accountancy, friends as surprised as her. A suitor, disappointed by the girl across from him, tells her she looks great… in the picture. Her reaction to the picture is that of disbelief — and of trust. That tourist-hunting photographer has found something in her, making her feel less plain.

The photographer, Rafi, is a creature of routine, who buys a kulfi at the very end of the month and has his patter memorised: his spiel includes a line about the way time will fade but the sunlight on your face will stay, in this photograph. Miloni, on a rare impulse, indulges him, but before he can give her the near-instant picture, before he can — in his words — ‘cover today in plastic,’ she has vanished.

He has other problems. A belligerent grandmother is holding him to ransom, halting her medication till he chooses a bride. Backed into a corner, he sends her the unclaimed picture, claiming this girl is the one for him, thrilling the lady who now wants to spend time with the girl. This is a situation straight out of classic comedy — but the thing about Mumbai is that it doesn’t always feel like a comedy, and the thing about farce is that pratfalls actually hurt.

Batra is an incisively keen observer, and Miloni is an arresting character. When she sucks on a gola on a Mumbai waterfront, Rafi predicts she’ll fall ill and, lo and behold, a couple of scenes later she’s sick. She lives a life so sanitised and bland that when — playacting as Rafi’s make-believe ‘Noorie’ — the grandmother enquires about her parents, she concocts a gruesome story of them having died under a collapsing masjid wall. She desperately pretends she has wounds so she can pretend to feel their pain.

Sanya Malhotra is superb in the role, boxed in by her own hesitation, softly and inwardly holding her own alongside the striking Geetanjali Kulkarni, who plays an observant maid. Their scenes together are a thing of beauty. The standout performance comes from Farrukh Jaffar as the outspoken grandmother, merrily prodding the younger folk with that impunity enjoyed by elderly relatives. Her jeers are good-humoured, but her phrasing is acute: she doesn’t say Rafi has his grandfather’s smile, but refers to it as his inheritance — the implication being that the smile is all he got.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is good as the taciturn Rafi, but slips into his default mannerisms, not digging deep enough into his bag of tricks to create someone truly remarkable. Those playing his friends add more texture, sharing drinks and proverbs around him, particularly Saharsh Kumar Shukla, who makes quite a meal out of the film’s graceful Hindi dialogues. Then, in one tiny miracle of a scene, a man named Secret shows up for a smoke.

“This is a country so big it has room for anything,” a character says. “Anything except what it has forgotten,” someone corrects him. More than anything else, this film is poetry. Photograph reminds us to believe in minor magic. Here is a film about a city that makes room for everything, from formulaic films to ghosts. Like when posing for a camera, all we need to know is where to look.

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First Published:
Mar 15, 2019 08:25 IST

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