Allow me to take you on a little detour..
Kurt Vonnegut (acclaimed writer of ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, ‘Cat’s Cradle’ among others) asks himself in his autobiography what has been his “prettiest contribution to the culture”, and replies that it has been his graphical representation of all stories told in our culture, numerically 8.
The concept of ‘Photograph’, boy takes random girl to meet ailing grandparent as fiancee because of pressures of marriage and ends up falling in love with her, has been explored multiple times in Indian cinema. Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaye (1977), Joru Ka Ghulam (1981), Manchali (1973) come to mind.
The reason I brought up Vonnegut is because I don’t want viewers to skip ‘Photograph’ for this reason, because the concept is something one has encountered before.
It tells the story of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Rafi (a photographer named after Mohd. Rafi) who, because of circumstances, introduces a chance customer Miloni (a beautifully restrained Sanya Malhotra) to his dadi as his fiancee. Photographer is a hat he wears out of necessity, rather than talent or passion. He is one of the the many who often hound us at India’s many tourists spots. So far so good.
Nawazuddin just about does justice to the role of a run of the mill photographer, with his much practiced and used sales pitch. His ‘fiancee’, Miloni is beautifully understated. She plays the role of ‘one lost in the millions of humans in Mumbai’ role to perfection. There are some balanced and easily relatable scenes between her and her father, a typical upper middle class father in Mumbai. And yet something about her mannerism seems unbelievable, maybe a few more details into her life would make her more understandable.
Throw into the mix the dadi (a feisty and entertaining Farrukh Jaffar), and things should become interesting. Spoiler alert, they don’t. She’s a matriarch – old, verbose, no mincing words types, she’s also supposed to be endearing and funny though. She’s definitely a highlight of the story, but I think gets more screen time than needed; and would’ve worked better in smaller dosages.
Nawazuddin’s friends on the other hand are under-utilized. They are a ragged bunch, never too shy of ribbing each other, throwing in many a punchlines during their many drinking sessions. Deserved leader of the pack, Saharsh Kumar Shukla, definitely deserved a meatier role.
Another underused character is Miloni’s maid, their conversations (about love, life, husbands) beautifully bring out the contrasting, colliding, semi-porous boundaries that co-exist in Mumbai.
Talking about Mumbai, it is arguably the most important, and the best captured character in the story. It is no surprise that Gateway of India is a fulcrum point, Haji Ali makes a blink-&-miss appearance and the kaali-peeli drivers are talkative, insightful and annoying at the same time. Even the people living in Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai are hardcore Mumbaikars, they are characters that have been shaped into what they are by the city.
That Batra can capture the city, it’s soul, with such depth and intimacy (despite his last 2 outings being thoroughly Hollywood affairs, ‘The sense of an Ending’ and ‘Our souls at night’) speaks volumes about his understanding of the city. The same understanding that made ‘The Lunchbox’ an intriguing microcosm of Mumbai.
He’s joined by his old partner in crime John F Lyons (from ‘The Lunchbox’) as the editor. Smart editing was one of the highlights of their success, when the lazy long shots, repeating motifs and detailed shots of the mundane, added to the monotony of the protagonists’ lives.
Following a similar style in ‘Photograph’ adds unnecessary weight and brings into focus creases which could have been otherwise glossed over by slicker editing.
Batra does not get the story or the writing quite right. There are points where scenes drag on, threads wander aimlessly asking for direction (a crime when the run time is a mere 108 minutes). He’s got characters I want to know better, plot points with unfulfilled potential…. In short, the movie needs more MAGIC.
Vijay Raaz (in a surprise cameo) brings a lot of that much needed Magic with him. But that is too little too late. All in all, ‘Photograph’ is a watchable movie for its depiction of Mumbai, for the intriguing characters, but squanders one too many opportunities by the end. With a heavy heart, I give the movie 3 chirps.