Friday Classics: Photograph, a Familiar Story Told in an Unfamiliar Way

I am so proud of myself, I watched a non-Indian movie! That is, a movie made in India but in a style totally unlike Indian film. And I understood it! Mostly!

This is about as unlike traditional Indian film style as possible, while telling a very classical Hindi film sort of romance. It’s an interesting artistic achievement, and for an audience familiar with Hindi film it’s a fun way of making us see the stories in a new way. For an audience unfamiliar with Hindi film, it is a reassuringly familiar style to introduce them to a new setting and a new kind of story. And if you have no context at all, remove all of that, it is still a very well-made film that anyone could enjoy.

Image result for photograph hindi film"

And now I have to go off on a little angry tangent for a moment, fully aware that this is a tangent and does not belong in this review, but there is no other place to put it. This film tells, in spirit, the exact same story as Jab Harry Met Sejal. But in style, it fits with the European art film tradition. I don’t even mean “style” like performances or details of how the narrative unfolds, I mean very specific stylistic choices like using a digital camera and natural light, making a movie that is an hour and 45 minutes instead of 2 hours and 40 minutes, and having background music that uses European style instruments and musical forms, lots of tinkly piano. The universally bad reviews of Jab Harry Met Sejal among the Indian English language writers did not say “this would be a good movie if only it used natural lighting more”. They said the story was unbelievable, the characters were trite, and so on and so forth. No one criticized the style. And this film, which is THE EXACT SAME STORY, got rave reviews. Because it doesn’t have songs, and it doesn’t star Shahrukh Khan. Suddenly the things which were unbelievable and trite before are now magical and real and perfect.

I know I need to review this movie as its own thing, but it got to a point when I realized what kind of story it was going to be telling where I was severely distracted by comparing point by point with Jab Harry Met Sejal. I don’t think Batra was influenced by Ali, it wasn’t THAT close. But they are both telling the same sort of character piece, two people who fall in love with each other and also with what the other represents for them (home and future for the man, and freedom and escape for the woman).

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SAME MOVIE!!!! An internal romance between two characters fighting their way to each other across what they do not see

And what both of them are also doing is taking the sort of romantic fantasy set-up Hindi film excels at and showing how it isn’t actually a fantasy. It’s not impossible for two people to fall in love at first sight across great social differences, there are reasons it could happen and could work out for them, ESPECIALLY within Indian society. It’s an achievement to take this fantasy and make it work in a way that the audience can understand what is happening and why it is happening without all the big declarations and drama of traditional Hindi film style.

Okay, FINALLY I have reached this film. The most distinctive stylistic element of this film is the choice of what NOT to show. Our two lead characters, Nawazuddin Siddique and Sanya Malhotra spend something like a month together. And all the audience sees is small moments of that time. Not the most significant moments, either in terms of narrative or their emotional journey, just random moments. We are left with the feeling of this enormous amount of unknown events, things we can fill in for ourselves. The story feels bigger for what is left out, like seeing a tiny spec in the middle of the sea. And the same is true of the two central performance. Sanya and Nawazuddin spend most of their time silent, when they do talk it tends to be commonplace utterances, I lost track of how many times Sanya’s only dialogue in a scene was “thank you”. And again, it makes the story feel that much bigger, that the little surface we see of each of them and of them together implies a far deeper reality.

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I love the little scene between Vijay Raaz and Nawazuddin, handing off the baton of the nontraditional leading man

In terms of visuals, as I said Bombay as never looked more beautiful. And original. That is an achievement. Bombay has been endlessly recorded thanks to over a 100 years of a film industry located there. Finding a new angle and a new location for this city, something to surprise the viewer, that’s a challenge. This movie shows us an upper middle-class apartment, a workers room, and also golden colored sidewalks, benches under trees, little places we’ve never seen before. And of course India Gate, possibly the most filmed landmark in Bombay, but with the focus on the people moving in front of it instead of the gate itself. The experience of watching the film is pure joy, pure beauty. The story is almost beside the point.

It is a lovely story though. A bit of a Rorschach test of a story, there is so little shown to us, we have to fill in the feelings and happenings ourselves. But what is shown is so beautiful, that you are left with beautiful ideas in your mind, and a beautiful spirit inside of you for all those other stories happening all over that you will never really know everything about.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Nawazuddin is a photographer at India Gate. He takes your photograph, then prints it while you wait. He works extremely hard and saves all his money to send home to his grandmother, living in a small room with 3 other men. Sanya is a young woman studying for her chartered accountant test. She lives in an apartment with her parents and a maid, spends her days in training classes and her nights studying late alone. One day Sanya goes for a ferry ride to India Gate and then impulsively has Nawazuddin take her photo. His printer malfunctions and she leaves before he can give her the second copy of the photo. Sanya loves the photo and shows it in class, where her teacher Jim Sarbh takes it from her. Nawazuddin learns his grandmother in the village is trying to get him married and, to stall her, sends Sanya’s photo with a letter saying this is the girl he loves. But then his grandmother announces she is coming to Bombay to meet this girl. Nawazuddin finds Sanya through her training classes and follows her around, finally approaching her after she indicates she is open to talking to him. He gives her another copy of the photo and she agrees to meet his grandmother. It is just a one time meeting, but Sanya shows up to meet them again the next day. For days, Nawazuddin picks up Sanya and they spend time with his grandmother. Twice his grandmother is spending the day elsewhere, the first time Nawazuddin takes Sanya to the movies, the second time to his rooms alone. Meanwhile at home Sanya is offered a proposal. She meets the young man, but turns him down. She also talks with her maid to learn more about life in a village. Nawazuddin’s grandmother encourages him to stop sending money home, stop trying to buy back the family house and start fresh in the city. He starts looking into a way to produce the old cola that was Sanya’s favorite and finds an old man with a bottling plant for it. And then the movie ends.

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So there isn’t really a “plot” as it were. There is just Sanya and Nawazuddin meeting, and then continuing to meet for no real reason as they each slowly work out in their own minds what a shared life together might look like. And in the middle of this, it all ends. We don’t even see Nawazuddin’s grandmother leaving, they are all still in the city, Nawazuddin is considering starting his own business, and trying to find Sanya’s beloved “Champa Cola” as a gift for her. Sanya is talking with her maid about village life and thinking if she could live that way. Will Nawazuddin propose with the gift of the cola? Will Sanya ask to go to the village with him? What happened when they were alone in Nawazuddin’s room? Or will this magical time turn into nothing, will they fail to meet up one day and never see each other again? It is up to the audience to decide.

This is a story of every Hindi film romance ever. The struggling poor boy, the rich girl who falls in love with him. But in the usual films it isn’t a hero who looks like Nawazuddin or a heroine who looks like Sanya. Or an apartment that looks like Sanya’s bland middle-class home, or an arrangement engagement that falls apart with as little drama as Sanya’s, or a job that has such a lack of danger as Nawazuddin’s, and most of all just the lack of drama in general. Sanya’s parents want her to meet this boy, but they are already a little uncertain about the engagement. She meets him and says no and they are fine with it. Later in the film Sanya’s teacher Jim Sarbh sees her waiting for Nawazuddin and tries to get her to go for coffee with him. Nawazuddin arrives and calls to her, she goes to him. No fight between Nawazuddin and Jim, no declaration of love from Nawazuddin in the aftermath, just Sanya quickly grabbing his hand in the cab afterwards. This is the story of every Hindi film romance ever, but as it might play out for people in “real life”, without the sparkle and drama and fantasy.

Same plot! And also Jackie’s story in real life, the poor boy who romanced the rich officer’s daughter

And without the narrative tidiness. There’s a reason Hindi films tend to end with a wedding. It puts a nice period to the plot, we feel like the story is complete even though the characters will keep living and changing and doing things while we aren’t watching. This film has no tidiness. There is no one moment when Sanya and Nawazuddin fall in love, they just slowly spend more and more time together. We end without seeing them declare their feelings, let alone get married. This is the middle of the story with no clear ending or beginning.

But it works because we can feel for these characters. We can see why they fit together as a couple, and we can imagine why they feel things for each other and what their future might be like. They are two characters who have made a virtue of self-denial. Someone telling them to relax and enjoy life is impossible, but finding a partner to step with them into a more joyous life is possible,

Nawazuddin’s parents died when he was young leaving him and his two sisters orphans. Their grandmother raised them, and Nawazuddin grew up with that scar of the poorer times. He found the money to get his sisters married and now he is trying to save up the money to buy back the family house for his grandmother. He doesn’t buy ice cream until the last day of the month, he saves almost no money for himself at the bank, he won’t even consider getting married because that would mean doing something for himself. Nawazuddin’s grandmother doesn’t want him to live like this, she wants him to find happiness for himself and be proud of what he has already accomplished, but Nawazuddin won’t listen to her. It isn’t until Sanya enters his life that suddenly he lets himself go just a little bit, goes to a movie for fun, buys an ice on the street, that he lets himself open up to life even more and consider letting go of his father’s debts and doing things for others and instead think about building a future for himself. We don’t need a lot of dialogue to learn all of this, the character is so clear and so well drawn by the director and script and performance, that he leaps off the screen and we will follow him into any story.

Sanya is slightly less well-drawn than Nawazuddin, but part of that is on purpose. That is, one of the first things we learn about her is that she used to love drama in school. She knows how to hide herself behind a mask and does it better than Nawazuddin. And yet, we still know a lot. She is her father’s pride, having already passed the first accountants exam at the top of the list. But no one in her family seems to really know her. She spends her days alone, walking around the city. And she spends her nights sitting up and studying. It is the maid who is kindest to her, sitting up with her to offer tea and biscuits. They aren’t cruel, they are trying to do what is best, we hear her parents discuss whether they want to offer her the engagement or if it would be better for her to finish her studies. But no one seems to really connect with Sanya, she is lonely. We can fill it in, a young girl who loved drama, pressured by her parents into giving it up, and from then on hiding away any part of herself that might want something beyond what she was “supposed” to want. A young woman raised in a home without a lot of love or laughter, craving that gentleness around her, that community, and that freedom to figure out who she was and what she really wanted instead of having her life planned.

Image result for photograph hindi film"

In another film, we would constantly see Sanya and Nawazuddin together. In this movie, the director Batra sets up a pattern. We see Sanya and Nawazuddin together, and then we see them apart silently thinking about their time together. It’s not a romance about two people falling in love, it’s about two people falling in love and then separating into individual people and thinking about what this love story means for themselves as individuals.

This is why we don’t get that marriage happy ending. Because it’s not about the romance. It’s about what the romance inspires within them. Sanya turns down the MBA fiance and reaches out to her maid, sees a new part of the city and a new part of life, and starts to move towards finding a different way to be happy. Nawazuddin considers changing his life, starting a business and settling in Bombay. That is enough. If the romance doesn’t work out, they will still benefit from these changes.

In the same way, this is why we don’t get the magical start of the romance. Because it didn’t start when they met each other. It started when Nawazuddin got his sisters married and started looking for a new neverending challenge and reason to deny happiness, or when Sanya was forced out of the drama in school and started feeling dead inside. The romance is just a part of all of it, part of everything happening in their lives. They fell in love with each other because of where they were in life, they started to change their lives because of falling in love, that is the story. Not love, but what love can inspire us to do, the way it can be a moment of sunshine and happiness in our lives that is as clear as a photograph.

(oooo, that is such a good ending line! Let’s all sit here for a moment and admire it.)

10 thoughts on “Friday Classics: Photograph, a Familiar Story Told in an Unfamiliar Way

  1. Oh yes, you stuck that landing :).

    I liked this as a character study, and the performances from Nawazuddin and Sanya. The grandma and friends too. It was cool to see this side of Bombay that functions like a small town, where everyone migrated from one area to the same neighborhood. That felt real, and I loved how it came out in everyone knowing each other’s business, the squabbling but with the sense of community and shared fortunes underneath.

    The script felt a bit lazy to me though, under the guise of being artsy. The ending is so abrupt and inconclusive. And where did the ghost come from? It was a good scene, but that touch of supernatural came out of nowhere. You can do slice of life and still give your story some shape, some inner logic, tie up some of the threads you’ve woven in.

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    • You know how I would have ended it? With them saying good-bye to the Grandmother at the station, taking a moment, and then Nawazuddin suggesting a plan for their meeting the next day. Indicating that, without discussing it, they had left behind the grandmother premise and just wanted to keep meeting. And then you could cut back to the movie theater moment for a nice poetic ending.

      And maybe I would have cut the whole bit about the magical Champa Cola factory? Just keep it simple, he finds an old forgotten box at the distributors. It was another touch of the magical and supernatural that made the rest of the film feel confused, along with the Vijay Raaz ghost.

      Maybe it is that Batra was running from story and at the same time had to fill out the film? He had a vision that avoided dramatic moments and simple answers. But while Sanya could talk to the maid, meet the potential groom, have the confrontation with Jim Sarbh, he kind of ran out of ideas on what to do with Nawazuddin to show how he is growing and changing and thinking without giving him the usual sort of big drama moments and scenes. After all, Sanya as the woman has to take a passive role. It’s harder to show why Nawazuddin isn’t proposing, or actively changing his life to make space for Sanya in it.

      On Fri, Jan 10, 2020 at 11:07 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I liked the Champa Cola bit precisely because it was magical and introduced a filmi element that at the same time seemed plausible, like you could imagine this old man with a business he can’t run anymore and nobody much cares about but Nawaz sees it through Sanya’s eyes and suddenly there’s a possibility there for a business that not only makes money but imbues life with meaning beyond the money.

        The Vijay bit was way out of left field and even though it was very funny it really didn’t belong in there.

        The movie was very slow and a lot of it dragged but I loved the ending dialogue:

        Sanya: You’re missing your movie

        Nawaz: I know the rest of the story

        Sanya: You’ve seen it before?

        Nawaz: No. (pause) After this song, the boy and girl fall in love. And then the girl’s parents will object. The boy’s a…he’s an ordinary motor mechanic, so…The stories are all the same in movies these days. The same.

        Sanya: Shall we go?

        Nawaz: Yes, let’s.

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        • I loved the ending too! That was perfect, and the perfect statement of “I know this isn’t a traditional narrative with a beginning and an end”. I just wish the part right before had been slightly better thought out. I will allow keeping the Champa Cola scene, but then I want something similar for Sanya, She wants to be an actress, maybe there is a neighborhood group she stumbles on near her apartment and watches them, so we can see a way forward for her to have a little more meaning in life too.

          On Sat, Jan 11, 2020 at 11:37 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I watched this tonight after seeing your review. I have to admit I found it to be such a slog for most of the movie. I paused it a few times and walked around and did other things because it wasn’t keeping me interested. You really have to push through and commit to it. On one hand, I really appreciated that they used someone unusual as the male lead and on the other hand, I just didn’t want to watch him. A romantic lead needs to be somewhat attractive even if it’s in a quirky way. Irfan would have really worked here better – an average looking guy but one that can grow on you within the time span of the movie.

    The grandma character was a little too wise and too good and it annoyed me in the same way that precocious children do in films.

    I’m surprised it had such good reviews because it was very underwritten. Obviously she wanted an escape but how was he going to provide that in the long run? She would be even more constricted in the long run with monetary problems, tiny claustrophobic home, having to provide both for herself and for him, getting sneered at by the world, probably dumped by her parents too. Is she going to start thinking rats running around her feet are cute?

    All I see was a girl who was sick of studying and was not interested in her profession and felt miserable because of it. How will dating or marrying a street vendor type possibly change that? She will have to be even more responsible and keep up with her work because he can’t afford anything on his own.

    For a love story to work, you have to get lost in it and here I just kept thinking how it does not make any sense to me. The words were so sparse that you’re supposed to think something grand and profound it happening although you don’t see any of it. It’s like they deliberately ended it that way just to make sure you realize it’s *art.* So pretentious.

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    • Woo, such power! Making people watch stuff just by reviewing it!

      I kind of liked how underwritten it was. The author didn’t try to give us answers or solve everything, because life isn’t like that. They aren’t rushing into marriage, she isn’t running away from her parents’ home, she is just beginning to think about a different way of life and what she really wants, and he is beginning to think as well. In two years, she could be fully qualified and at an entry level job and he could have a small business started. They could get married and she could work in their business, as an equal. Or any number of other things could happen. They don’t have to plan out their whole lives right now, they can just take things as they come.

      But I was also surprised by the good reviews. The movie worked for me, mostly, and I know it did for some other people who commented here. But it didn’t feel like a universal hit. It was beautiful, just the arrangement of the shots and the sunlight and so on was beautiful. But it wasn’t a universal kind of story and, as you say, not everyone can get lost in it.

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      • The shot were gorgeous. Mumbai looked beautiful and I liked it like a travelogue.

        This kind of movie is a good fit for streaming though. I watched it at my leisure, took breaks when I got bored, came back and so on. I would have probably walked out of the theater if it was on the big screen.

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        • Good point. I think I would have been more mad at it if I’d seen it the theater. Sitting on the couch, the stakes are lower and I could be more forgiving. Kind of half movie, half TV.

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  3. OK, found the review. I don’t know why I didn’t look–I know you haven’t seen Lunchbox so assumed it was the same for Photograph.

    I loved Vijay Raaz in this. I clapped, alone in my apartment, when I saw him. I thought he was there to show Nawaz getting away from conventional thoughts and fears. Like, Tirwari is held up as a bad example of what’s going to happen to Nawaz if he doesn’t get married like his grandmother and friends want, and he literally haunts the movie until Nawaz falls in love with this unusual partner. And then Nawaz gets to meet him and smoke a bidi together and it’s fine.

    My favorite scene was Sanya explaining to the grandmother that when she saw Nawaz’s photo she saw a girl who was happier and prettier than she was. That feels like a true declaration of love, and it’s not even clear if she’s making it up for the grandma or really feels that way.

    Excellent last sentence! Not even forced!

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    • I love that scene of Sanya talking about why she loves Nawaz, and it felt like one of those lies that becomes true. Before, she just liked the picture and then took a leap and a risk for no real reason. But from that moment on, she has changed her memory and this is what happened. This is what she will tell their children and will convince herself is the truth.

      On Thu, Oct 1, 2020 at 10:37 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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