Photograph Review

A still from “Photograph” featuring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra. Nawazuddin is alright as Rafiq, but is fast showing his limitations with that classic tendency of theater and arthouse cinema actors of acting exactly the same way regardless of role, while Sanya Malhotra is supposed to be blank, and does it well. (photo provided)

Amazon Studios, Poetic License Motion Pictures, RSVP Movies (India Release) present “Photograph”

Produced by: Ritesh Batra, Viola Fügen, Neil Kopp, Michel Merkt, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani and Michael Weber

Written and directed by: Ritesh Batra

Music: Peter Raeburn

Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Sanya Malhotra, Sachin Khedekar. Vijay Raaz, Jim Sarbh, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Farrukh Jaffar, Lubna Salim, Akash Sinha and others

History repeats itself. Ritesh Batra toes his “The Lunchbox” pattern of endless and monotonously infinite repetition (there it was the office lunch and an aunty’s basket) and goes, this time, on an absurd trip. It resembles his earlier film – of two people craving for novelty and maybe love in a routine, humdrum life in which they have accepted monotony but are suddenly placed in a situation that offers some variety and spice. However, the end result is such that the overseas box-office, which was said to be very good for the 2013 film, will not be anywhere in the same category.

Because, above all, the premise of this film, itself, is absurd, unlike the more credible one of “The Lunchbox.” Rafiq (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is one of those anonymous photographers at Mumbai’s Gateway of India, clicking instant pictures of tourists. A local Gujarati girl, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), who is studying for her examinations in Chartered Accountancy, agrees to have her picture clicked. On Rafiq’s instructions on how to pose, her photograph comes off so well that she loves her happy look in it, for her life is so singularly monotonous that everything from what she wears to what she does is decided by parents or sister.

Rafiq’s ‘dadi’ or grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar), back in his Uttar Pradesh village, goes on a hunger strike (!) as he is refusing to consider marriage. So he convinces her that he is in love with a girl named Noorie and sends her Miloni’s picture. Grandma comes to town to see her, and there is a hint that the train will take about three days. Really, Mr. Batra?

Grandma comes visiting, even stays for days with Rafiq and his buddies in a tenement, and meets ‘Noorie,’ even giving her a family ornament. How did Rafiq convince Milon to pretend being Noorie? Well, the script chooses not to dwell on such uncomfortably logical questions (What? Only David Dhawan can do that? How dare you say that?). Instead, it cursorily creates this absurd connect between academic topper Miloni and tenement-dweller Rafiq, who is uneducated.

We would have even accepted this license had it not been for the avalanche of absurdities that are piled on. Forget trivia that both Rafiq and Miloni roam twice in pouring rain and without an umbrella, do not get wet, but we also have the lady going out late nights with Rafiq with no one questioning the topper student at home.

The servant sees her with him at the seaside, but is satisfied with her glib, one-line explanation, ‘He is not my boyfriend!’ Then there is Miloni’s meeting with a prospective match who lives in America, and she tells him she would like to live in an Indian village, making him tongue-tied. Why? Because Ms. Maidservant has once described her simple life in a village to her.

Then there is the shopkeeper from whom Rafiq buys a comb, soap and shaving blade. And the matter of the household ghost (!!!) who appears once, and so on.

Rafiq’s dadi soon comes to know that Noorie is not Noorie at all and is not even a Muslim, but that seemingly does not make a difference. Miloni’s teacher (Jim Sarbh) tries to get close to her, reasons unknown of course, but is rebuffed. And Rafiq says that the guy “touching” Miloni was wrong, even as they hold hands and he keeps his hand on her leg just a few seconds later.

The interactions between Rafiq and Miloni in private are supposed to be cute but become flat and tedious. At home, we get Miloni chewing on food always in monotonous company of her family, and she settles down to a late night study with the maid asking if she can get her something, maybe a biscuit. This happens so often you wonder why the film could not have been called “Biscuit” instead.

Then comes the ‘couple’s visit to a movie hall, just about the most decrepit place possible in Mumbai, complete with a scurrying mouse.

Oh, yes, what was all that recurrent leitmotif about a defunct cola called “Campa Cola” (which fizzled out in the 1980s in real India) whose formula has been purchased by an old Parsi who has a plant (!!) of sorts at home for his wife? He gifts Rafiq a bottle as Miloni loves it. But he is never shown giving it to her!

AHHH! Now we come to the masterly illogic of such “evolved” and “realistic” directors: for Miloni to have loved Campa Cola, she must have drunk it almost 40 years ago. Was she so old and still a C.A. student in 2014-plus, the era of skywalks in Mumbai as shown???? David-sir, this time you are facing a Goliath!

The basics of screenplay writing say that every story (and feature films are about storytelling, right?) must have a beginning, middle and end. This one has none, and the open “end” is so sudden and mysterious it is as if the notebook in which Batra was writing the script got to the last page and he decided to call it quits to this humdrum, tiring and sleep-inducing drama without head, tail or spine.

It always boils down to this. Directors who do not even know the first chapter of filmmaking for Indian audiences get hyped on one fluke success or media-exalted motion pictures, especially if there is a certain success level attained at the overseas box-office or if their offerings are known as well as obscure international film festivals.

But even the preconditioned hard-boiled fans of such films and filmmakers, at least on home terrain, realize that filmmaking for Indian audiences is more than about branding. Solid content is a must, and with apologies to foreign moviegoers, Indian film buffs cannot always be fooled by world cinema-inspired weird cinema and makers who try to pull wool over their eyes.

Again, many of such filmmakers, especially with an “international” standing, thrive and revel in showing the seamier side of Indian life, especially in the grimy ethos of a metro like Mumbai, with shabby by-lanes in slum areas, creaky, ancient elevators in decent looking buildings and squalid eating stalls and houses.

Only three actors have scope here, as in most such films. Nawazuddin is alright as Rafiq but is fast showing his limitations with that classic tendency of theater- and arthouse cinema actors of acting the same way regardless of role.

Sanya Malhotra is supposed to be blank, and does it well, looking dazed all the time as a programmed automaton must! Farrukh Jaffar as the spunky grandma is a winner – her expressions and vocal modulations are awesome. Most of the supporting cast is apt, and we must single out Geetanjali Kulkarni as the maid.

The music is terribly monotonous, often ill-matched with the situation and mood. Batra scores as the dialogues writer, and, if the idea was to make India’s commercial capital and prime megapolis look singularly unappetizing, scores in camerawork and production design!

Batra shows again that making a Hindi film needs a solidly INTELLIGENT mind, not an INTELLECTUAL one, who is happy hypnotizing a minuscule and susceptible section of the audience that looks down on classic Indian cinema. And as a director, he takes us back to those times when a “photograph” could be so badly conceived, clicked, underdeveloped and suffering from faulty exposure that it made no sense whatsoever when you saw it!

Rating: *1/2

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