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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Photograph, Review: Ode dear

Photograph, Review: Ode dear

If only vignettes and mosaics could add up to a good script, Photograph would look refreshingly different. If improvised dialogue and incomplete scenes could substitute for a coherent narrative, Photograph would find its place in the album of memorable cinema. Forlornly, though, Ritesh Batra’s Photograph unpeels itself like the layers of an onion, offering emptiness at the end of the exercise, instead of discovery and resonance.

Arriving with a sumptuous treat of a film called The Lunchbox (2013), the toast of India five years ago, after making three shorts, Ritesh Batra made two American films before turning to India again. Photograph has American and German backers, besides their Indian counterparts, and is a composite of English, Hindi, Gujarati and Urdu languages. Photograph is set in Mumbai and features many shots of the sea and ferry boats, plying between the Gateway of India and nearby islands. A hark-back, maybe, to his youth, since he is the son of a merchant navy officer father, and grew up in this metropolis.

Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a street photographer who operates at the Gateway of India, clicking pictures of passengers arriving on ferries, against the backdrop of the iconic edifice, counter-balanced with another iconic building, the Taj Mahal Hotel. He works long hours and charges Rs. 30-50 for a print, which he provides in a couple of minutes, from his portable printer.

All the money he collects, barring what is needed for his bare necessities, is sent by money order, through the Indian Postal Service, to his paternal grand-mother (Farrukh Jaffar), in Kanpur some 2,000 kms away, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is with this money that he got his two sisters married, and now he hopes to be able to pay off the debts of his late father.

Shy and introverted Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) arrives at the Gateway with her mother and sister-in-law by ferry, and Miloni wanders off. Rafi approaches her and asks whether she would like a picture taken, giving her his routine sales pitch. She does not react at first but when he persists, she agrees. Strangely, before he can give her the photograph, she disappears. Looking at it repeatedly, Rafi falls in love with the photograph and with the subject too. Destiny leads him to her, as she comes often to tuition classes near the Gateway. But he keeps his feelings firmly in check.

Rafi’s grandmother wishes to see him married and constantly pressurises him to find a suitable match. She even starts looking for possible liaisons back in their village. Unwilling to bring his wife to live with him in his hole-in-the-wall slum dwelling, in Mumbai, nor amenable to the idea of leaving her in the village, he keeps saying “No”. When she becomes obstinate and arrives in Mumbai, he shows her Miloni’s photo, naming her Noori, as his love interest. When Rafi’s grandmother wants to meet her, Rafi convinces her to fake their relationship, to which Miloni surprisingly agrees.

Photograph is, simultaneously and concurrently, an ode to the films and music 1960s-1980s era, ode to the single screen cinemas where rats run around your feet, ode to a bottled aerated beverage that was the favourite in the 1970s and 80s, ode to the money order method of transferring money via the Indian Postal Service, ode to conventional-digital still cameras, ode to the box transistor radio, ode to the dying profession of tourist photographers, ode to familial bonds and commitments, ode to farms and village life, ode to persons of few words, ode to servants who share their employers’ concerns, ode to friends and neighbours who live in penury and enjoy every moment of it, ode to unrequited love, ode to sublime love, and more.

It seems that Ritesh Batra (writer-director) is trying to choke your emotional nerve centres one by one, but perplexingly, he uses the poker-faced humour while administering these doses. Rarely does anybody laugh, though the audiences catch on in some places. The film is relentlessly bittersweet, with the bitter winning over the sweet. Likewise, the sadder moments linger, within the bouquet of mixed sentiments. A case of too many odes, where mere simplicity and economy would have worked wonders.

One set of characters is well-developed, those who stay together in the loft. They include Rafi and about half-dozen migrants from North India, who share each others’ joys and sorrows. Of the two main female characters, the grand-mother is a tour de force. Loquacious and sentimental to the core, she will remain with us for years to come. Miloni is a big disappointment. Shy and introverted is fine, but coming across as mute or mentally challenged is hard to swallow, from somebody who is a topper in her Chartered Accountant exams, a test that only the highly gifted can get through. Not once does she smile fully, in the entire film, though on a couple of occasions, she does come close to doing it. Her family, and that of her prospective suitor, stay within character, but by contrast, appear uni-dimensional. Even in this family, it is the ‘have not’, Rampyari (Geetanjali Kulkarni), the resident maid, who is the most understanding and convincing. Her sister-in-law and mother are merely there to complete the family.

Batra takes a few avoidable short cuts. No reason is given for Miloni’s family to take a ride on a ferry to merely get a dress stitched. It is not clear where she stays. Sometimes, she takes a taxi, on other occasions she rides on buses and, of course, there is the ferry. Rafi’s spotting her again, and following her for days, is too co-incidental and far-fetched. The poster bit flashes so fast that you cannot register it at all, thereby making the grand-mother’s declaration that she knows Noori is not Noori and that she is a Hindu, inexplicable. Rafi suggesting the make-believe act, besides the fact it has been done in so many films and plays of yore and more, is too preposterous. Her unconditional agreement, not to mention eagerness, is even more incredible. The entire track of the tuition class, and the photo landing in the pocket of the tutor (Jim Sarbh), leading to the roadside altercation, did not belong to a film with non-formulaic sensibilities. Ditto the photo-session, with Rafi’s arm around her shoulder, where she is seen by Rampyari.

Starting in classic Nawazuddin mould, Siddiqui becomes the butt of jokes about his complexion and his “tirchhee muskaan” (sardonic grin) as the film progresses. Augurs well for the talented actor who has been type-cast so many times that he desperately needs to re-invent himself henceforth, to do any justice to a face and voice that have had their natural run. Except in scenes when the dialogue ends abruptly for no apparent reason, he puts in the second most impressive performance in the cast.

Sanya Malhotra (Dangal, Patakha, Badhaai Ho)’s is not, lest you are getting ideas, the second most impressive. She can do only so much with blank, vulnerable, unconventional looks, trade-mark hair and two half-smiles in a 110 minute film. Her wit comes as a bolt from the blue, when she improvises the answer to grandma’s question about her parents. That said, it would need an actress of the calibre of Nargis, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman, Nutan or Smita Patil, to put life into the lifeless role.

And now for the one and only Farrukh Jaffar (Umrao Jaan, Tanu Weds Manu, Peepli Live). Farrukh was the first announcer of Akashvani (All India Radio) Lucknow, back in 1963. At 86 going on 87, she shows no signs of dementia or any other age-related mental disabilities. On the contrary, her dialogue delivery is crisp and masterful, and her exuberance contagious. You could learn from her how Urdu, the most sweet and sonorous of Indian languages, should be spoken. Pity that even a stellar presence like hers cannot lift the film to the heights of glory.

Sachin Khedekar and Lubna Arif, as Miloni’s parents, are passable. Ramesh Deo, who turned 90 in January this year, puts in a cameo, as a doctor. That makes two actors close to 90. There is a third, one who plays the Parsee running the mini bottling plant. He gets to speak barely one line and I could not find his name in the credits searched on the Internet. Ode to old age? One more ode? Oh dear! Vijay Raaz, another ‘cameoist’, who is seen as a ghost who smokes a bidi (local variation of a cigarette, made of dried leaves and tobacco), is his usual self, poker-faced, revealing nothing. Jim Sarbh (Neerja, Death in the Gunj, Sanju) has a persona that lends itself naturally to negative roles. As the tutor, he is slick and exploitative. Good support comes from Denzil Smith, Abdul Quadir Amin, Robin Das, Shreedhar Dubey, Ashok Pathak, Sunil Shakya, Saharsh Kumar Shukla and Sanjay Kumar Sonu.

Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins exhibit a penchant for floor-level shots that are in abundance. You see just feet, mainly Miloni’s, time and again. They also then tilt up the camera and rise, to reveal a new character, though this must be under the instructions of the director. Another stylistic motif is the framing, wherein only about 40% is occupied by a face, and the rest is completely out of focus, ever so often. Besides straining the eyes, the ploy achieves pretty little. Frames often shift, due to the extensive use of hand held cameras that might have shaken.

Editing by John F. Lyons follows the narrative technique of Batra, allowing some characters get into verbal diarrhoea while another, Miloni, maintains a stoic silence. Time and again, the camera lingers much longer than the demands of the shot, for no apparent reason, giving you an opportunity to study the details of the picture, but nothing emerges from such exercises. Scenes are often cut abruptly, leaving a lot to the imagination. Music by Peter Raeburn and art direction by Pradip Paul Francis are commendable.

Some takeaways: the title song of the film Noori (1979) plays twice on the radio and once in the background, and Rafi thinks of naming Miloni ‘Noori’ because of this song. ‘Jaan-e-man, jaan-e-jaan, tumney mujhey dekha’ (sung by Rafi’s namesake Mohammed Rafi in Teesri Manzil, 1966) is a kind of theme song, used, as it is, no less than thrice, at key moments. Inventive poetry by Majrooh Sultanpuri and the music by Rahul Dev Burman contribute to a an everlasting song about the lover thanking the beloved for accepting his selfless love.

Those who are familiar with Batra’s work will have no complaints about the ending. Other might find it as vague as The Lunchbox. Softee ice-cream and kulfi (the hard, local variety) are used as metaphors for what life has to offer and the choices we make. On a scale of softee to kulfi, I’d rate the film half-way.

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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