(Release Info London schedule; June 29th, 2019, BFI Southbank, Belvedere Rd, Lambeth, London SE1 8XT, United Kingdom, 17:15 pm)
Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a struggling Mumbai street photographer, pressured to marry by his grandmother Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar), convinces Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a shy stranger, to pose as his fiancée during a family visit. Despite vast cultural differences, the pair develops a surprising connection that challenges their worldviews in a wistful and funny romance.
Rafi comes to Mumbai from a small village to earn money to pay off an old family debt. Working as a street photographer, he shares one small room with friends and sends almost everything he makes to his grandmother, Dadi, in the hope she will be able to buy back her ancestral home. To satisfy the elderly woman’s desire for him to marry, he sends her a photo of a shy stranger, claiming that the girl, Miloni, is his fiancée. When his grandmother insists on a meeting, he tracks Miloni down and asks her to pretend to be his betrothed. A sheltered young woman studying to become an accountant, Miloni lives a quiet, middle-class life with her parents, and awaits an arranged marriage to a suitable boy when she finishes school. She impulsively agrees to Rafi’s scheme, opening the door to an unexpected adventure at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. "Photograph" is a heartwarming and comical snapshot of life in contemporary Mumbai.
Miloni, a shy and traditionally raised middle-class 'Mumbaikar', crosses paths with Rafi, a 'Muslim' villager living in the city trying to scratch out a living as a street photographer. Who are these people, what happens to them and how it's that their lives go along together for some time. Miloni is very strong, and keenly sensitive to the needs of others. She's devoted to her family, but also feels burdened by the ties. She's seeking a sense of freedom that she has never had, freedom from family traditions, expectations, status, societal norms. Miloni’s experience of life is limited to home and school, but she has a measure of curiosity about the world around her. She has never had a chance to decide what she wants. She has been led by her family’s priorities for her and by the force of tradition. She's a dutiful daughter. The logical next step for her is marriage to a suitable boy, one carefully vetted and selected by her parents. But meeting Rafi has her wondering if there could be more to life. There’s constant pressure from the society to be a certain way. Meeting Rafi opens an entirely new world to Miloni and it’s the world she wants to live in. He allows her to experience things she hasn’t before. Through his friendship with Miloni, Rafi is exploring the possibility of falling in love, something he has never felt he had the opportunity to do. He’s letting himself go for once in his life.
Rafi and Miloni are divided by radically different religious, economic and cultural backgrounds, and even skin color, but both struggle with the same kinds of existential questions. India’s in a very interesting place now. For probably centuries, people always thought as a family first. Recently, they've started to think of themselves as individuals rather than as part of a family. It’s become one of the central conflicts in Indian life today. Miloni and Rafi find themselves at odds with the expectations of a modern world in which they can’t ever truly be themselves. For her, it means that while she has been raised to be a professional and is excelling in her classes, she still lives with her parents and must defer to them in all things, including her choice of career and husband. For his part, Rafi has moved far away from the village he grew up in and lives without family around him, but he's still bound by tradition to restore his family’s honor and to satisfy his grandmother’s wishes. Differentiating visually between Rafi’s chaotic, hand-to-mouth world and Miloni’s orderly family life is essential. It helps to define the internal state of a character with the color of their surroundings, especially in quiet movies like this that are expressive only in ways that are true to the characters. The film uses warmer light and mainly handheld camera work to depict the scenes in Rafi’s world.
As an example, there's a scene in which Miloni walks from her apartment building’s elevator into her parents’ apartment. The elevator itself establishes her relative economic privilege, while her reaction to the conversation in the apartment offers a window into her thoughts. There's a sense of nostalgia that Rafi has, and that Miloni has inherited from her grandfather. The sense that these characters would have been happier in an earlier time when life was simpler in India, when everyone was not running around so much, when there was only one kind of cola on the stands, one TV channel, and two kinds of cars. Miloni speaks about missing a soft drink from her childhood called 'Campa Cola'. It was the only cola available in India for years. It's a golden-age fallacy, but the nostalgia is what binds the two characters together. Following the intersecting paths of two people who would typically never meet has a source of humor. The different ways people express that can be both funny and sad. People often mistake that kind of longing for loneliness. Longing is an act full of life and vitality, with room for humor and sadness and everything in between. Lots of people longing for all kinds of things; the past, things they dream of but have never seen, other people, even for the smallest of things.
Rafi’s imposing grandmother, whom he calls 'Dadi', has a single mission in life; to make sure her grandson gets married sooner rather than later. She writes Rafi letters, sends messages though friends in Mumbai and relentlessly entreats him to find a wife. Her determination may seem hilariously over-the-top to some audiences. It’s pretty realistic. It may seem exaggerated, but that’s pretty much how it goes. After a certain age, if you’re not married it becomes the point of your life for both men and women. All your relatives are asking why you aren’t married yet. When Rafi tells his grandmother he's engaged, she immediately makes the grueling journey from her village to meet his fiancé. Dadi, a diminutive dynamo, turns her laser focus on Miloni as soon as they meet, dominating the conversation with a barrage of blunt questions to determine her suitability as a wife. Perhaps because the three characters are so different, their encounter opens new doors for each of them. Some people are able to inspire us to be something other than what we believe we can be. They do that for each other. She brings about a curiosity in him. She inspires him to take a moment for himself and do something for somebody other than his family. He gives her an opportunity to explore and expand her world, to take on a new persona when she's with him and his grandmother. There’s a lot of nobility and sacrifice that goes into thinking as a family as opposed to thinking as an individual. These people are torn between that and putting their own desires first.
Since the international success of his 2013 debut feature film, "The Lunchbox", "Photograph", marks Batra’s return to his roots for an inspired and funny look at love in the contradictory world of modern urban life on the Indian subcontinent. The film is inspired by both exuberant 'Bollywood' musicals and a classic 'Shakespeare' comedy. They're always some kind of 'Taming Of The Shrew' adaptation. There are hundreds of them with a poor guy who’s maybe a car mechanic and a rich girl who's a little hot-tempered. For decades, 'The Indian Film Industry' has made tales of plucky heroines who defy tradition and family with the men they love it's stock-in-trade. The girl in these movies has little more to do than look pretty and spend three hours being mindlessly pursued by the hero as her family alternately bosses her around and mollycoddles her. Nowadays she may have a job, a goofy group of friends, a lovable dog, or none of these, but she’d certainly have a say in who she wants to end up with. Living in Mumbai today has more a feeling of an independent arthouse film than a 'Bollywood Extravaganza'.
The action of "Photograph" begins at the bustling 'Gateway Of India', a landmark that has become a symbol of both modern and historic Mumbai. Built to commemorate the visit of 'King George V' and 'Queen Mary' to India in 1911, it has become a favorite place for tourists and locals alike, with pleasure boats that tour the harbor and vendors of all kinds. For decades it welcomed dignitaries arriving in India via 'The Arabian Sea'. So it’s a tourist attraction but also a local hangout and it’s always jam-packed with people. "Photograph" is the first film shot at 'The Gateway' since the 2008 terrorist attack on the nearby 'Taj Mahal Palace Hotel', a Raj-era architectural marvel that's often seen in the background of the film. Mumbai is a densely populated city of about 20 million that continues to grow every day. There are about 10,000 people moving to the city every day. There's a mass migration from the villages into the city. Mumbai is a city of stark contrasts, home to both a 27-floor private residence and some of the most desperate slums in the world. Centuries-old temples and modern office buildings co-exist side-by-side, while the glitzy world of 'Bollywood' and India’s straight-laced financial sector flourish. Luxury hotels and restaurants have proliferated in recent decades. 'Chowpatty Beach' is a longtime destination where visitors still enjoy the city’s renowned street food, bhelpuri, in a portable paper cone.
In this complicated, hectic world, the film tells a story of extraordinary sweetness and optimism. The location has much to do with the story. It's shaped by life in Mumbai, which cannot be replicated in any other city in India or elsewhere. People are defined by the small corner of 'The Earth' they stand on. The film captures the city we travel through every day, the people we meet every day. Nothing expresses a character’s internal state more than how they perceive magic in a world that seemingly has none. If you believe in a ghost, maybe he will come and speak with you someday. "Photograph" may surprise audiences with a picture of an incredibly diverse metropolis. It's a classic independent film that Americans will easily relate to. It’s about finding companionship and maybe even love, but filtered through an Indian sensibility. Whether it's to save the home in the village or complete a degree or get a temporary reprieve from family pressures through this photograph, they end up making some space in their own lives for the things they long for. They're finally able to think of themselves as individuals, not just a cog in the family machine. It does show that India is no different from anywhere else in the world in many ways. This film is not meant to be a cultural education as much as it's an emotional experience that's true to the time and place, which is today in India. It's a simple, timeless, universal message about vastly different people being able to transcend boundaries. In these times, where Trump wants to build a four meter wall at the Mexican border, this is a very important message.