Photograph too Languid for its Own Good

Photograph (2019)
Directed by Ritesh Batra
Amazon Studios, 108 minutes, Not-rated
In Hindi and English

Director Ritesh Batra attracted attention for his delightful 2013 film The Lunchbox. It garnered so much renown that he got to direct The Sense of an Ending, a 2017 adaptation of an acclaimed Julian Barnes novel. If, however, you plan to see his new film, Photograph, set your personal shutter to a slow speed.

Our protagonist Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a street photographer who poses his subjects in front of Mumbai’s Gates of India, a famous city landmark.* Rafi scrapes by and carries most of his belongings, including a portable printer, in his backpack. He shares a squalid and allegedly haunted hovel with four other men and his only real indulgence is a once-a-month kalfi, a frozen dessert that’s like a cross between ice cream and a popsicle. Indeed, one wonders how he can afford the expensive Nikon that he uses in his work. Poverty is just one of his problems. His dadi (grandmother) is relentlessly pressuring him to marry and settle down. She’s so tenacious that, though she lives in a remote village, she is known to Rafi’s friends and uncle, who also pester him about marriage and making his dadi happy.

Rafi recalls an enigmatic young woman whose picture he took, but who had to dash off before her picture was developed. Imagine his surprise when he finds her image on a poster outside an accounting school as its star student. He learns that her name is Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) and concocts a scheme to pass her off as his girlfriend to get his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) off his back. Perhaps because in her own way Miloni is as morose as Rafi, she agrees. If this is a love story–and that’s up for grabs–it’s certainly an unconventional one. Rafi is dark-skinned, Miloni of fair complexion. He is an impoverished Hindu who is streetwise, and she a sheltered middle-class Muslim whose parents employ a beloved house servant. There is also an age discrepancy.

Let's cut to the chase, which is something Photograph takes its time in doing. The strictures of Indian society are such that all relationships must play out according to social norms. Don’t expect fireworks in relationships or in any other way. In one scene, Rafi and Miloni are in a rundown movie house where a Bollywood film is being shown. Miloni is so distressed that she runs out. Rafi pursues her and the two share their dislike for the Bollywood genre** and the sameness of story arcs. This is reflexive filmmaking from Batra, whose reputation was built upon not making formulaic Bollywood films. This is to be applauded, but Batra goes too far in the other direction. The line between languid and somnambulant is porous and is often transgressed in a film that spotlights two characters defined by their inaction. The only break in the pacing is a scene that makes no sense. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say that a splash of magical realism in a film with two characters trapped within the routinized and quotidian seems misplaced.

There is also the issue that Photograph is not a comedy, a drama, or a recognizable romance. Was this deliberate on Batra’s part? Perhaps, but the film has the feel of painting one’s self into a corner. Apparently distributors were also confused. Photograph gets tagged as a “love letter to Mumbai.” Huh? It is quite a stretch to infer that from what’s on the screen, most of which is literally or figuratively interior. Whatever Photograph might be, though, it’s certainly not a travelogue.

Both Siddiqui and Malhotra are fine actors that wring as much as they can from a thin script that calls each to be passive. If you think the film’s deliberate pacing is a refreshing change from Bollywood and Hollywood histrionics, this film is for you. I liked parts of it, but overall Photograph is underexposed.

Rob Weir

* The Gates of India were built in 1911 to commemorate a royal visit during the days of British colonialism. They are impressive and Indians like to pose before it, an oddity in that the Gates are practically modern in such an ancient land.

** This is an inside joke on Malhotra’s part as she rose to cinematic fame for her dancing in Bollywood films. Bollywood films nearly always feature singing, dancing, and a formulaic chaste romance.

No comments: