"What an absolute waste of time," I heard a woman complaining to her friend as they walked out of the theatre after watching Photograph, a few paces ahead of me.
That’s one way to look at the film. The other way is to walk in without expectation, and allow it to unfold at its languorous, contemplative pace.
Six years after The Lunchbox, director Ritesh Batra returns to Mumbai with Photograph, another unlikely love story — this one between poor street photographer Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and middle-class college student Miloni (Sanya Malhotra).
He’s among the dozens of photographers that amble around Mumbai’s iconic Gateway of India, convincing tourists to having their photographs taken in front of the monument for a small price. She’s an academic overachiever, resigned to a life of number-crunching and success as defined by her businessman father.
We're told that she used to be a promising actress in school until her family decided she needed to focus more on her studies. He lives in a tiny room with four other occupants, saving every penny he can to pay off past loans; her face adorns many hoardings around the city, having topped her CA entrance exams.
Their worlds and paths couldn’t be more different. And yet, somehow, they collide.
Harangued by a loving but bossy grandmother who refuses to take her medicines until he takes a bride, Rafi lies and tells her he’s dating someone called Noori. It’s a white lie meant to buy him some time, but grandma decides she needs to see her future granddaughter-in-law in the flesh and rushes to the city from the village.
Noori is none other than Miloni, and luckily, Rafi manages to track her down before grandma’s arrival and convinces her to help him. Maybe she misses acting, or maybe the lie offers some unexpected respite from the monotony of her life, but Miloni agrees.
A romance told through small moments
Over the next month or so, under the ruse of entertaining his old grandmother, Rafi and Miloni develop a bond that cannot be easily defined. The beauty of their romance — if it can be called that — is not made up of a few big moments, but many small, heartwarming, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them touches.
There is the time when he is obviously perturbed by her professor’s unwelcome overtures, but doesn’t have the language to convey his concern. How much license does he, a poor photographer, have to care about the woman he calls “madam” in a world where relationships are solidly confined within the boundaries of class? He doesn’t feel he can ask, but she assures him she’s okay, anyway. Or the time she finds herself thinking about him in the middle of a date with a prospective suitor.
Siddiqui's Rafi is shy, hesitant and restrained. You can't help but feel a lump in your throat as you watch a man so weighed down by responsibilities that he's forgotten how to smile as he crushes over a girl he'll probably never have the courage to admit his feelings to.
Malhotra, as Miloni, holds her own as a lonely young woman in search of something — without knowing what that something is. Farrukh Jaffar, as the cranky grandmother who gets away with everything by attributing it to her “mother’s heart” provides for some great comic relief, and Geetanjali Kulkarni is endearing as the maid who becomes Miloni’s confidant.
The film ends on a bittersweet, wistful note. Do Rafi and Miloni go back to their lives after this brief interlude, or do they, like the ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ in the movie they see on their first and only date work to fight against all odds to be with each other?
The only way to sum up the film is that this photograph is not instant — it takes time to develop, and for its many colours to take hold and transform a blank page into a memory. Just as prints require a patience that most of us accustomed to the instant gratification of smartphone cameras no longer have, Photograph is meant for an audience that can appreciate love that is unhurried, meandering, and has no beginning, middle, or end.
Love that, much like a photograph, exists only within the boundaries of the time it is bracketed by.
For everyone else, maybe it’s “an absolute waste of time”.