The director of “The Lunchbox” presents yet again, a love story birthed with his signature style elements and its uncanny chance-based progression. The picturesque frames of “Photograph” are reminiscent of those in “The Lunchbox”. Batra is true to his style of directing and screenplay through and through. The audience is made to see him in his work through the way in which he frames his subjects, what he chooses to bring into the cinematic foreground, what he chooses to keep out of focus, and yet brings the audience's attention to it. The cinematic adaptation of the screenplay is as simple and ordinary as the story is. Batra’s specialty seems to be the ability to bring out the extraordinariness in the mundane.
Life for Miloni seems to be a series of choices that her family has made for her. As a topper in CA she has made her family proud as the opening scene in which her father takes a picture of her poster shows. Quiet and distant, she keeps to herself and focuses on what her parents expect her to focus on. However, her success and everything her family seems to make a big deal out of are things that are insignificant to Miloni. Out of chance on an ordinary day, Miloni meets Rafi, a photographer who sells instant photographs at the gateway of India, whom Miloni forgets to pay in a hurry. Rafi is an ordinary man, trying to make ends meet. He lives in a slum near the railway station and the only family he has is his sisters and his grandmother who raised him.
Rafi and Miloni are people who keep to themselves, they don’t speak beyond necessity. Rafi’s aim in life is to clear his family’s debt, after which he will agree to a marriage, something Rafi’s grandmother has been pestering him about. When Miloni forgets to pay for the photograph Rafi uses a copy of her photograph in an attempt to pacify his grandmother about the topic of marriage feigning that he has found himself a girl. This lie comes back to bite him when his grandmother decides to come to visit demanding to meet this girl.
The chemistry and the connection between Rafi and Miloni begin with the photograph. For Miloni, there is something different about the photograph. She has never seen herself this way. To her, she is almost unrecognizable, as she will later tell Rafi’s grandmother. Batra makes his audience realize that Miloni has in fact seen herself through Rafi’s eyes, and the audience will never see the picture that claims the centrality of the movie or at least see it in full clarity. He places the photograph or the photographs that Rafi will capture of Miloni in the background, out of focus, as if they only belong to the two of them, as if the audience is not allowed to enter that space where Miloni and Rafi become one. The audience is not allowed to even see Miloni posing for the pictures, the only thing we see is Rafi clicking the photos. It is interesting to see the way the element of centrality can exist in a thing even though it is in the background for most scenes. Being in the background the photos don’t lose their impact on the characters.
The film revolves around the idea of the gaze. The way Rafi sees Miloni and the way Miloni sees Rafi. The gaze, however, is not limited to a visual ‘seeing’ of sorts. The gaze, on which “Photograph” is based, is perception. Miloni, probably for the first time in her life feels ‘seen’ through the photograph that Rafi, a complete stranger clicks of her. She becomes attached to the girl in the photograph because she is given the awareness of being seen through it. As the film progresses, we see this gaze of perception mature between Rafi and Miloni. Rafi notices Miloni. He pays attention to her, and she to him. He notices that she always refuses to drink Cola. She notices his discomfort when her teacher grabs her hand without asking for her permission. There is a growing understanding that is stronger than words, in the silence that allows for this gaze of perception to become evident in the film. The mutual understanding between Rafi and Miloni is seen in the way there already is trust between them in the second exchange they have, where Miloni asks Rafi why he gave her the photographs before meeting his grandmother, he could have easily held those as leverage. Batra’s characters are beyond the superficialities of life and are rooted in the experiences they hold dearest. The characters both, value the memories and the moments they have, more than anything. It is seen in the way Rafi keeps his father’s tradition of eating kulfi at the end of every month alive, and in the way, Miloni refuses to have Cola because her grandfather used to buy her Campa-Cola as she was a child every day. Through these characters, the audience is presented with a commentary on what really matters in life, what holds significance. The anecdote about Rafi’s end of the month kulfi was purposely interrupted at the start of the film when Rafi is almost going to tell his friend about it, it is only allowed to resurface in the presence of Miloni. Such is the subtle genius of Ritesh Batra, elements in his film are right where they are meant to be.
Batra chooses to open the film with a strong dialogue by Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Rafi the photograph, trying to make customers want to click a photograph. The dialogue is an open comment on the ephemerality of life, it brings to focus that nothing remains, except the moments that we have. “everything will be gone forever” he says before he speaks of “the rays of the sun on your face and the wind in your hair” that he can capture in a photograph. This dialogue foregrounds the very nature of not just the film but also the root of the bond that will grow between Rafi and Miloni. The ability to perceive people and through this perception understand them does not limit itself to Rafi and Miloni. Miloni is seen gradually spending more and more time with her maid, sharing things with her that she would not voluntarily share with her own parents. Miloni begins to see her maid, really see her as someone with a family, a life apart from the persona of a maid of her house. She wants to talk to her, ask her how life is back in the village and how she wants to come to visit. It is not just the idea of love that is explored in the film but also the mundaneness in the nameless connection between Miloni and her maid.
The film captures the mundaneness of everything the camera comes into contact with. The ordinariness of the food that is shared, the setting of Mumbai and everyday life through the scenes in the bus, as well as the taxis, the domestic space of a home, the space shared by the crowd of people at the gateway of India and finally the ordinariness of memories. Batra wants to talk about what really should matter. He wants to bring to the forefront the significance of the sensitivity in the effort in human connection, and the importance of holding onto moments. It is a simple attempt to capture the delicate intricacies of human connection and love, that will leave your heart with warmth.