Ritesh Batra’s second Hindi film Photograph, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra, follows the age-old rich girl-poor boy trope but gives it a fresh spin.
The chemistry between the lead pair is crackling. We see them together at the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s iconic spot, among a sea of tourists.
Sanya Malhotra as Miloni, a CA entry-level topper, looks lost in the crowd while a purposeful Nawazuddin as Rafiq follows her, asking her repeatedly to get an instant photograph clicked at a discounted price of Rs 30.
Miloni relents, Rafiq’s camera captures her, and a love story begins.
This love story’s propeller, however, is neither Miloni nor Rafiq, it is Rafiq’s grandmother played by Farrukh Jaffar. Dadi is determined to see Rafiq settled. Her pressure forces Rafiq to invent an imaginary girlfriend – he names her Noori but gives her Miloni’s face.
Any rich girl-poor boy plot is driven by the class divide between the two characters. Ritesh Batra uses it too, but not in the clichéd way. Rafiq’s background as a daily wage earner does not stop him from asking Miloni to be his fake girlfriend.
The divide never hinders the interaction between Miloni and Rafiq. It is rather explored through Miloni’s exchanges with her maid or when Rafiq realises that Miloni has another admirer who belongs to the same upper-middle class society as her.
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In Indian society, the exacting standards for maintaining a certain physical appearance are always placed on women. In Photograph, the burden lands on men’s shoulders. A prospective suitor for Miloni watches his weight while Rafiq tries a cream to brighten his skin tone, and Dadi says her grandson’s skin was once as golden as wheat. The stereotypical notions around machismo are constantly challenged by Photograph with a dose of humour.
Nawazuddin as Rafiq is competent as ever as he once again shows the gentleness we had last seen in his Shaikh in Ritesh Batra’s critically acclaimed The Lunchbox (2013). He easily slips into the role of Rafiq, a photographer who works hard to buy his village home back, but won’t hit another man.
Sanya Malhotra’s Miloni barely speaks and conveys her conflicted ambitions in life through nervous glances and empty stares. This is in complete contrast to the characters she has played in Dangal (2016), Badhaai Ho (2018) and Pataakha (2018).
Like in The Lunchbox, food is a character in Photograph too. Ritesh Batra uses nostalgia-inducing childhood favourites like Campa Cola, kulfi and softie while tracing the back story of his characters.
Cinematographers Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins do a commendable job of capturing the film through unique frames. A large number of shots have an out-of-focus element in the foreground and the character in the background. It almost feels like they want you to search for the character in the frame.
But Photograph lacks the pace of The Lunchbox, and that is the movie’s biggest drawback. Batra lets the camera meander and capture the brooding nature of his characters, but sometimes he does it for far too long. Some tight editing would have definitely helped.
The film, however, remains a stunning creation that captures the dreaminess of south Bombay. It bets on the possibility of a slow love brewing between strangers through a silent understanding.
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