When a masterpiece fails to become one (Column: Bollywood Spotlight)

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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 Rays “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 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”, and 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 film “Noorie” that was released in 1979. Nothing in the personality or behaviour of the characters suggests the 1960s or the 1970s 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.

–IANS

skj/vm

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