Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra
Director: Ritesh Batra
The film Photograph has already been a talking point at prestigious international festivals at Sundance and Berlin with several complimentary reviews, flagging it off as a festival film. Most films that fall in this bucket have the distinction of being feted at festivals and then receiving a mixed reaction on home turf.
Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra, Photograph is likely to meet the same fate. At the film preview, there were diametrically opposite opinions on the film. Mine falls safely in the favourable category. Ritesh Batra, the director and the writer of this film –also the director of films like The Lunchbox, The Sense of an Ending and Our Souls At Night-- has spun genteel stories where the most unlikely people find respite from their loneliness in someone unexpected. Photograph, a film about Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) a street photographer, one of the many migrants who come to the city from Uttar Pradesh in search of a livelihood and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a Gujarati girl, is one such.
The two disparate characters chance upon each other at the Gateway of India, that one Mumbai landmark always swarming with tourists and photographers like Rafi making it the perfect setting for this chance encounter. As Miloni loses her family in the crowds milling around, she runs into Rafi who makes his customary pitch. And at that moment when Miloni allows Rafi to click her photograph, one knows that an instant bond has been formed. That vision becomes symbolic of what is meant to be. Miloni looks happier in the photo than she is and Rafi, becomes the unexpected originator of this happiness.
Batra’s subversion of the Hindi film staple—poor boy-meets-rich girl and an ensuing romance within a heartbeat-- is sheer genius. Rafi and Miloni make for an oddball couple yet somehow, they are able to fill an undefinable void in each other’s lives. Quite like Ila and Saajan in The Lunchbox. The twain can never meet but till the time that they must part, they give each other hope, happiness, and meaning.
In a particularly clever stroke, Batra infuses his story with subtle humour created by Rafi’s friends and his Dadi (Farukh Jafar). Rafi’s Dadi being on a hunger strike to make him find himself a suitable bride is the subject of much mirth through the film and also the reason that brings him and Miloni together.
Photograph’s pacing of scenes is life-like and suits the realism that is the hallmark of Batra’s films. The dialogues are sharp –whether it is the colourful lingo of the UP migrant workers and stories they share or the cab drivers with their smart-alecky asides —they are on point. The detailing in the film, its production design—a chartered accountancy coaching class that goes by the name of its teacher played by Jim Sarbh-- is impeccable. Or the small hovel that houses Rafi and his friends is another such.This is a quintessential Mumbai story. An ode to a city built and defined by its working class.
Of the actors, Siddiqui plays Rafi with consummate ease, and a restraint that is refreshing. His performance is so sublime that one can venture to say that he is not acting, he’s just being the character. Malhotra’s sincere performance shines despite being a somewhat underwritten character. The broader casting too is quite apt. Even bit roles by the likes of Akash Sinha, Geetanjali Kulkarni, and Vijay Raaz fit neatly into the story with the actors playing their parts to perfection. However, the hero among the cast would have to be Farrukh Jaffar, whose performance as Dadi is a tour-de-force. Her conversations with Rafi about their life, her observations on Miloni are both mirthful and mature. Small-town India and a few of its virtues are indeed well etched out in the ensemble of characters and capable performances by the entire cast make them memorable.
Regardless of what Photograph achieves in terms of box-office monetary gains, the film, an O’Henrisque story, leaves an idiosyncratic imprint of Mumbai and its quirky tales that we love.
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