Ritesh Batra is a filmmaker of the yearning, of those that are leaning behind in nostalgia as they survey a new batch of life. There is a phrase in the Italian movie The Great Beauty that would perfectly fit the frame of his characters; the line goes- ‘Up with life, down with reminiscence’.
In his new release Photograph, through the pretext of a character’s dialogues, he might have slid us into what he thinks of those that are only swinging up in life, keeping up with stages of life and the social responsibilities that come with it. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is in a play-acting as Rafi (Nawazzuddin Siddiqui)’s fiance to his grandmother at a busy restaurant. Until now, we’ve seen Miloni as a melancholic young daughter in a family of imposing, quietly overbearing elders who decide what clothes look good on her, what career she should pursue, and who’d make the ideal suitor for her. When asked about her family by Rafi’s grandmother, she slips into a tale about how all her family was killed when a mosque wall fell on them. As is characteristic of Miloni, she’s saying with a tinge of innocence, but you can’t help sensing that she kind of enjoys this fancy exaggeration in her mind- it is not clear, only a passing thought, in our minds and in Miloni’s as well, what would life be like without those overbearing elements around her? I grinned at the possibility that this was Ritesh speaking to us about characters outside his melancholic mindscape.
Just like his last Hindi film The Lunchbox then, Photograph is hardly a love story, as much as it is a striving to become a love story. If the accidental Lunchbox became the fortuitous link between the white collar Saajan and the housewife Ila, a photograph becomes a bridge between Rafi and Miloni here. Miloni thinks the photograph Rafi takes of her at the Gateway makes her appear as someone happier, prettier, and thus initiates herself into the entirely different world of Rafi when he requests her for the mentioned play-acting. For Miloni, the photograph is means to a newer version of her outside her limited existence at home; for Rafi, the photograph becomes a dream outside his meager, heavy-hearted existence as he begins to consider marriage upon the imploring of everyone around him. How close does this sound to Jack providing Rose a new lease of life with her naked painting in Titanic(1997)? Photograph seems to take up a similar chance incident in the city of Mumbai, but the sexual angst there is transposed into a need to interact with someone similar here.
Rafi’s loneliness is hardly like Saajan’s in The Lunchbox; Saajan was drought due to the absence of kindred, which is not the case with Rafi. Rafi has people concerned about him at about every corner of his society in Mumbai, from the grocery-waala to the Kulfiwaala to the taxi driver passing by, to empathetic roommates who speak in glorious metaphors as they loll away the hours of night drinking together- one of them says to Rafi, in order to explain to him the relation of finding love and the rising meter of age, that if a boat doesn’t find a coast soon, it capsizes.
Rafi’s namesake Mohammed Rafi’s songs often float in the air, and everyone around Rafi is so full of respect and concern that they seem like chorus members in Mohammed Rafi’s songs and in the passage of our own Rafi’s life. Rafi is weighed down by something else, by a debt that took his home away back in the village, and the need that he imposes upon himself to live in a foreign city to undo that debt. He says he won’t marry until that debt is undone- that he is not a soft softy, but a more solid Kulfi, as he reminds his friend in another drinking episode. But quite clearly, his resolve doesn’t break after this claim, it is already crumbling as he is trying to claim strength when he says this. It is why when his grandmother appears in Mumbai and he’s off at the station to receive her, Ritesh’s usually cold camerawork finally, in a beautiful move, gives in to wielding a Dutch angle, because Rafi’s world is now beginning to topple from his resolve, from the life that he’s made for himself.
On the contrary, Miloni’s life doesn’t have any such theatrics, except a maid, in whose descriptions about village life at one point, she smiles at what she sees as a distant, idyll life. Her days are spent in more pale and tense dinner table discussions with her family, where the feet underneath the table express more than the faces above it. A Mohammed Rafi song begins in Rafi’s surrounding and cuts to Miloni seated far in the background in her room, seated deep in a recess of her household, before the footsteps of the approaching maid eclipses the song. With time, as her adventures begin, we’ll see Miloni alone in her room, closer to herself now, with a reflection of hers in the mirror beside her, considering something new outside the prepared layout of her life.
This is where the film’s problem might come in, because in The Lunchbox, there was a literal physical distance Ila and Saajan, which made them, as much as us, consider bridging the gap between their lives to convene, and it also made sure that there was a pulpy tension in that narrative about if that meeting was actually possible. In Photograph, towards its conclusion, you begin to wonder about them more in the sense of separate individuals than in the sense of an improbable collaboration inching closer. The reasons for Saajan and Ila were so distinctly found in the states of their lives and their discussions that grew more and more dense; in Photograph, you’re not quite sure- how far is Miloni seeing with this relationship? What are her considerations? Is she going to be reckless and troubled because of this? At one point, even as there’s a risk of Miloni being caught in her act, it is shrugged away with ease and her world remains at balance even as something this eventful is occurring in her life, leaving the film possibly drying out as a result. The small pleasures of this film are very gratifying, but I suppose I say to them just what Rafi’s grandmother does at one point- “ek dusre ke Kareb ho miyaan”( come closer to each other you two).