Calm, understated and with an unusual friendship at its centre, Photograph touches on societal and class differences in contemporary India while leaving the viewer to make up their own mind about the plot. Marie found it gently captivating.
Audiences who have seen director Ritesh Batra’s 2013 feature The Lunchbox may well see certain similarities between Photograph and the director’s earlier film.
Both are set in India, with an older male and younger female protagonist who both appear to be unhappy or adrift from the world around them. A simple, coincidental connection is made between the two, and the story in both films unwinds from that point.
Whereas in The Lunchbox the two never meet, Photograph sees its two leads form a strange kind of relationship, in which neither seems to say very much to the other, and yet they easily fall into the kind of companionship that both understand without explanation. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a quiet, young accountancy student living in an apartment with her clearly wealthy family which includes a maid from a nearby village. She’s being gently prepared for marriage by her parents, who introduce her to a suitor, but in whom she has no interest. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is easily 20 years older than her, a man from the village who has been a long time in the city making a meagre living as a tourist photographer and sending all his spare money home to his grandmother to pay off his father’s debts. He, too, is being coaxed to marry – by his male friends, offering him advice and suggestions in a way which in Western-based films might often be more common among groups of younger women. Despite the fact that Rafi now lives in a huge city, there’s a funny sequence where just about everyone he meets, from taxi drivers to ice-cream sellers, enquire after his grandmother in the village; everyone seems to know that she’s been unwell due to the failure of her grandson to marry and settle down.
In an effort to appease his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar), he sends her a picture of Miloni and tells her she is his girlfriend. Of course, grandma decides to pay a visit, and Rafi persuades Miloni, a stranger at this point, to play the role.
In other (read Hollywood) hands, this premise would probably be turned into some kind of mad-cap rom-com, but Batra retains the calm aura around both of them and allows the friendship to develop both with and without the grandmother present. In fact, we don’t even hear what Rafi actually says to convince Miloni to agree – it’s a conversation had at a distance, and allows the viewer to decide what they think was said between them.
With a small handful of exceptions, it’s notable that the majority of men in Miloni’s life are virtually invisible on-screen. They are shot from behind or from the neck down so that we don’t see their faces, or they are blurred in the background, showing her marked lack of interest in any of them. On the other hand Rafi, the photographer who puts her centre of his photographs and more or less of his life once he meets her, is never blurred or cropped.
Playing the role allows Miloni to visit places and experience things that she would otherwise never be in a position to do, and although it’s never expressed, it’s clear that she’s thinking about the divisions in her country between rural and urban, wealth and poverty, light and dark skin, different religions.
As with the initial convincing of Meloni, Batra also leaves the audience to decide for themselves how they wish to interpret the ending. Some may find this unsatisfactory; I liked the fact that there was a hint of a dig at how films ‘are all the same’ and how they ‘usually’ play out, while leaving options open. While it’s obvious that the friendship brings important things to both parties, it’s never really clear how either sees the future. There are no grand declarations of intent. In fact Sanya Malhotra as Miloni has an understated calmness to her performance, which reminded me on occasion of Hayley Lu Richardson also playing a younger woman who meets an older man in Kogonada’s 2017 feature Columbus.
In some ways, Photograph is almost too understated – and yet this gentle drama which went nowhere and didn’t end ‘properly’ captivated throughout.