Film review – Photograph (Ritesh Batra, 2019)

Photograph is a sweet film that has the feel of being a western take on what Indian cinema is. It’s doesn’t have any large set pieces or emotional pyrotechnics, the character development is sparse and the ending is fairly predictable, but despite these the overall effect is largely positive.

Director Ritesh Batra has returned to ground familiar to anyone who saw his soaring debut The Lunchbox, which brought him to prominence in 2013. The concept of an unlikely friendship blossoming into an even unlikelier romance is revisited here, with a beautifully-shot Mumbai serving as the backdrop for both. Fans of his debut expecting another uplifting romance will feel a little shortchanged, so it’s best to appreciate with a fresh palate.

With Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Rafi and Sanya Malhotra as Miloni Shah, the film is in great hands. These are two complex characters and they’ve clearly thought through every move under the guidance of director Batra. Rafi has an underlying anger that is fully realised without he need to clumsily explore his past through flashbacks irrelevant to the main plot. He plays it perfectly – a man frustrated by the pressures of arranged marriages that are being compounded by the arrival of his meddling but well-meaning grandma (Dadi).

Equally, Sanya Malhotra negotiates her role delicately. Hers is a character who goes a long way to keep those around her happy, so starting a relationship with someone unknown to her family is a huge step. It’s a role relevant to so many global movements to ensure better rights for women, though some may question if her stance is a little too understated. Or perhaps it’s just more realistic in her situation than if she’d openly displayed anger.

The ending is effective, even though it was signposted from about ten minutes in. Yes, it’s a poor man and a rich girl falling in love, which is tried and tested ground for so many films – a fact they mention in the climactic scene – but it’s certainly not handled clumsily. Just because we’ve seen it before doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable.

It isn’t a groundbreaking film, but not every piece of cinema has to be to leave a lasting effect.

Film review – Beyond the Clouds (Majid Majidi, 2017)

Majid Majidi’s latest film ‘Beyond The Clouds’ received its world premiere on Friday night at the pop-up Embankment Garden Cinema, specially created for the BFI London Film Festival. The director was in attendance to introduce this most brilliant and vibrant of films, alongside cast members Ishaan Khatter and Malavika Mohanan and several members of the crew.

The Mumbai-set tale centres around Aamir (Khatter, in his cinematic debut), a 19-year-old who is making a living of kinds by dealing drugs around the slums and docklands of the city. After a drugs bust leads to a chase with the police, Aamir winds up at the doorstep of his sister Tara (Mohanan). She attempts to protect her brother, but she ends up in prison herself. He must quickly learn to take responsibility to save his sister and their relationship.

In its opening shot, striking in its simplicity, we see the overarching message of the film. We see a busy but cleanly neat overpass, cars flying by. An unknown boy stands at the side of the road. A car pulls up and hands him a package. As we follow this mystery person as the camera pans down, the short one-shot focuses on our protagonist as he takes a package through into the underbelly of the divided city. It is an underbelly littered with street-bound families and forgotten people.

Whilst this separation of classes is made clear, it is a film, first and foremost, about the brother-sister relationship between our two main characters. It is about how they have let their close bond slip, leaving them with nothing but emotional wounds and lost memories of better times before the death of their parents.

Given that getting this chemistry right was such an important piece of the filmmaking puzzle, it seems like a risk that director Majidi cast two relatively unknown actors in the lead roles. Speaking in the Q&A after the film, director Majidi said: “The presence of superstars is crucial for most Indian films, and perhaps particularly in India with 2000 films produced every year. The audience is really keen to see their favourite actors on the screen. Despite the fact that there are so many superstars in India I asked the producers to let me cast people who’d never acted in front of a camera before. I was lucky they agreed to let me do that.”

The actors may not be superstars now but they are clearly destined for greatness, providing two absolutely astonishing debuts to form the backbone to the plot. Mohanan has enjoyed previous successes in Malayalami films, though this is Khatter’s debut. “The casting process was extremely long and we’re very lucky that both main actors come from acting families,” he added.

Lead actress Mohanan was forthcoming in her surprise at the fast turnaround from casting to appearing on set. “I came on set one week before we started filming. The process started and it was incredible… we had so many creative highs.” She is clearly visibly excited to have been given an opportunity by a truly well-respected director, though it didn’t affect her on set. “I don’t think it really hit me until the shoot was over. I had no time to take it in! It was incredible and the journey was so beautiful. So many of my scenes were so intense. I’d never done that before and I didn’t think i could do that.”

Actor Khatter was equally positive about the process, praising the method Majidi used to get the most out of the cast. “He didn’t want to give us time to develop the character. He’d rather we did it on set.”

The results are astonishing.

A. R. Rahman provides the score. Rahman previously worked with Majidi on the film ‘The Prophet Mohammad: The Messenger of God’. In the two years it took to complete that soundtrack, they grew to be close collaborators. The score for ‘Beyond The Clouds’ ebbs and flows, allowing the picture to breathe around it. It is never more apparent than the opening scene, bringing to life an introductory montage that explains fully the character Aamir and illuminating the dark corners of Mumbai that the visuals reveal.

There are several key scenes that use silhouettes, which prove to be a recurring theme and are used to portray contrasting emotional situations. Early in the film Aamir witnessed the trafficking of women through a silhouetted screen, bringing him suspicion. Later on there’s a powerful scene involving an arresting sexual assault on a woman that plays out behind hanging sheets. It’s a simple framing device that runs throughout the film and each shot is captured perfectly by director Majidi working alongside cinematographer Anil Mehta.

Beyond the Clouds is a wonderful film. At 58, Majidi is still taking huge risks that are paying off. The result is a raw and believable story that has plenty of heart and a powerful message. Simply a must see.