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When A Masterpiece Fails To Become One

Subhash K . Jha

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 Why has Ritesh Batra let us down so  miserably with his  latest film? Think about it. It had everything going for it. A  director whose first film The Lunchbox  became the most beloved Indian film since Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and who has since then  worked with international icons  like Robert Redford, Jane Fonda,Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling. Batra’s new film had  a cast  and  a lead pair that looked  tempting, if not  entirely inviting and most of all,  it was meant  to be the NRI director’s  homage  to  the city  he loves the most, Mumbai.

But Mumbai in  Batra’s  Photograph  looks  like a city that is losing it sparkle and  drowning its dream. The fact that the  characters  are flat  and the  presentation  is  listless  could have something  to do with why the  city doesn’t come alive in the way it did  in the  director’s  first  film The Lunchbox.

In fact the  stillness , the  terrifying inertness  that surrounds some  of  the characters seemed so  palpable, I  thought I was  missing something. So I  sat through the  film a second time. Well, that’s not entirely true(I couldn’t  watch all of it  again)  . But untruth is what this  misfired masterpiece  is all about.And it’s truly astonishing how  some  of our  critics have fallen for the ruse, describing the  film’s  “wonderful  quietude”  and  “ordinary characters”
as something  to be lauded.

Funny, how responses  depend on labels. If this same  film had been made by Jagmohan Mundra(God bless his  soul)  it would been  dismissed as  pretentious and boring.

But more  about the hypocrisy  of  celebrating labels  rather than  the  quality of  the product, some  other time. What really bothers me is how the sheer atrociousness  of  the basic plot in Photograph could have  been so  wholeheartedly embraced  by  the critics  here. We even had some of them  justifying some of  the  film’s most impossible  situations.

Try this. A Muslim migrant  photographer Rafi living on  the edge  of Mumbai’s  povertyline asks a homely  simple girl  from a Gujarati  middleclass family Saloni whom  he knows only from  a photograph, to pose as his  girlfriend  for  the sake   of his doting demanding Daadi.

 Rather than  slap him in his face, Saloni agrees!!

The reason  she  gives later(she  doesn’t talk much, as she is  supposed  to be quietly ruminative, though Shakespeare once  said that those who talk less  do so because they have nothing to say) is because that snapshot which Rafi clicked of hers made her look much happier than she  actually was.

 Are  we really  buying into that logic?  Ok then.That  photograph is  passed on in Saloni’s classroom  from student to student like  a prized gold coin found in a  muddy playground.

This  is  meant  to be some  kind of a comment  on how unhappy Saloni is .  But  the  flip side  is  Rafi’s sunny (to the  point of inducing a  sunstroke) grandmother who descends  on  to Mumbai like  a firecracker in fast-burn.She talks all the time and  yes, everyone  loves her , both  in the film and  among the  salivating critics who  raved about it.

This  feisty grandma character  seen  in Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor , more recently in  Amit Sharma’s Badhaai  Ho and now in Batra’s film has become  a huge cliché, and it is now customary  for every critic  to  love the Feisty Grandma.

Alas ,  the character has  nothing in this film to sink her dentures into. In fact such is  the torpidity  of   the  Mumbai that Batra  loves so much that   the most exciting thing  that happens to  Grandma  is off screen .When she was travelling to  Mumbai to excitedly  meet her grandson’s phantom-fiancee , a childbirth  happened in  the train.

Or so she tells  us. Was she making it  up?  That  untruth would  fit in most appropriately with  the  mood  of this film,  an ode to the  art of artifice where even nostalgia is  tripped over. In one sequence we  see Saloni and Rafi in a rat-infested  movie theatre. The song playing on  screen  is Tumne mujhe dekha .So I presume they are watching Teesri Manzil.

Errr, which year is Photograph based in? Teesri Manzil was  released  in  1966. But then there  is also a reference  to a song in  the  filmNoorie that  was  released  in  1979 .Nothing in  the  personality  or behaviour  of  the characters suggests  the  1960s or  70s  except maybe the pigmentation fixation.

A  cabbie who drives  the  dark-skinned hero  and  the light-skinned heroine  comments,  “Are  you two actors? Why else would she be seen with someone  like you?”

Why indeed.

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