Late into The Lunchbox, Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a widowed accountant living in Mumbai, has dinner at his colleague Shaikh’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) place. Over spoonfuls of kheer, a strange request is made: Shaikh confides in Fernandes that his wife Mehrunisa isn’t his wife yet, that they are runaway lovers laying low in the city. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone,” Fernandes says. “It’s not that,” laughs Shaikh, adding, “Her father has agreed and we will be getting married soon. The only thing is, I don’t have any family of my own. So I was wondering if you would like to be my guardian at my wedding?”
The idea of makeshift bonds — pretend relationships forged in the bustle of urban life and convenience — reappears in Ritesh Batra-Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s new collaboration, Photograph. Nawaz plays Rafi, a bachelor street photographer clicking tourists in South Mumbai. When his ailing grandma pressurizes him toward marriage, Rafi sends her a photograph of a young girl and tells her he loves her.
The ruse backfires when grandma shows up, prompting Rafi to trace down the girl in the picture, an upper class college student named Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), and convince her to playact. “(The plot) is just a conceit, to bring two characters together. I feel movies should really be about who these people are, and who they become as a result of the story,” says Ritesh, least bothered by the thematic threads running through his filmography — which includes the UK-produced The Sense of An Ending (2017), an adaptation of Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning novel, and the Netflix movie Our Souls at Night. “That’s for critics and analysts to write about — what’s similar and what’s not in my movies.”
The trailer of Photograph opens with a tracking shot by the Gateway of India. Ritesh, a Mumbai boy who moved to the United States for his higher studies, sounds thrilled about his (second) return to the city, seven years after his debut feature The Lunchbox (2013). “These are characters who could emerge only out of Mumbai. It’s an overwhelming place to live and work. I like to shoot my films from the point of view of my characters; the city just comes into it,” he says.
Like Ritesh, Nawazuddin, who moved to Mumbai in 1996 after graduating from the National School of Drama, speaks fondly of his relationship with the city, both on-screen and off. “The joy of filmmaking is that you get to enter a new time and space every time. The Mumbai of Ganesh Gaitonde in Sacred Games is different from Manto’s Bombay of the ‘40s. Similarly, Rafi’s world is a completely new one, with its own rhythm and thought. Cinema shows us how a thousand different voices and worlds exist within the same city,” he says.
On his acting process, Nawaz shares that Photograph posed a new creative challenge for him, as the film required him to ‘be himself’ and ‘not act’. But what exactly does that mean for a trained perfomer like Nawaz, someone with years of muscle memory to expunge? The actor explains, “Ritesh wanted to remove all hints of a performance from my part. He kept doing takes till a casual-ness crept into me. It took some effort to unlearn (my craft) and be natural. I think I succeeded in doing that. I have pretty much played myself in Photograph, how I was when I had come to Mumbai.”
Both Nawaz and Ritesh are all praise for Sanya. After making an impressive debut in Dangal, Sanya appeared in two films in 2018: Pataakha and Badhaai Ho. For her performance in Photograph, the actor was listed among the five top breakout talents at the Berlin Film Festival by The Hollywood Reporter. “Photograph was the second film I signed after Dangal. I am much similar to (my character) Miloni,” she says.