Tuesday, 31 December 2019

My review of 2019

Yes, another year has passed and I am astonished, as always, how some of the things that happened in the last twelve months seem so far back in time!  In many ways it has been an eventful year, in terms of domestic and other personal matters, but as for the main subject areas covered here the pattern of past years has continued, albeit with a lessening of frequency and choice.  In particular, attendance at talks and conferences and other outreach programmes has declined, partly because a lot of the stuff covered there is familiar or otherwise easily accessible anyway.  Nearing the end of my eighth decade has also a lot to do with it.  That said, I am still here, alive and kicking, though for how long who can tell.  Anyway, let me start with the books I have read during 2019:


1) `Becoming` by Michelle Obama -  isbn 978-0-241-33414-0 – Viking p/b – © MO 2018 – 426 pp – an absolutely fascinating read – thorough in every respect – one was immediately drawn into the narrative – she was/is conscious of where she has come from and where she had ended up – her background, ethnicity, educational achievements and personal and professional trajectory, all of this is brilliantly captured, but that is only the `Becoming Me` part; then come `Becoming Us` (and one can guess what that refers to) and `Becoming More`; she makes no bones about her black working class background – a respectable one – but more importantly what comes across is that hers was and has always been an aspirational middle-class family and her outlook on life has been shaped by these values – an auspicious beginning for my book reading for this year!

2) `Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British` by Jeremy Paxman - isbn 978-0-670-91957-4 – Viking h/b – © JP 2011 – 355 pp (incl end notes, bibliography, index) – a scholarly study (though not amounting to an academic critique, more like an intelligent traveller`s overview) of the history of the British Empire and its spread through the centuries right through to its demise – in a narrative style befitting a veteran journalist and tv presenter. 

3) `Why I`m No Longer Talking to White People About Race` by Reni Eddo—Lodge – isbn –HB 978-1-4088-7055-6 – Bloomsbury Circus h/b – © R E-L 2017 – “On 22 February 2014, I published a post on my blog” titled as in the book.  “After I pressed publish, the blog post took on a life of its own.  Years later, I still meet new people … who tell me that they`ve read it”.  This book was published in 2017, so `years later`?  It just shows the superficiality of the whole project.  I found it a rant, and the more I read it the more I was put off it.  There are some observations which are fine; the rest is a reverse form of prejudice and partiality. 

4) `Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh` by Anna Beer – Onward Public -  ISBN 978-1-78607-434-8 – © AB 2018 – 318 pp – a comprehensive biography of Elizabeth I`s favourite and renowned explorer who was put to death by her successor James I for an alleged treasonous plot – found it too detailed and got bored halfway through to a tortuous end.

5) `Warlight` by Michael Ondaatje – isbn 1787330710 9781787330719 – Jonathan Cape h/b – © MO 2018 – 290 pp – set in 1945 London as the war was coming to an end – about a young brother and sister more or less abandoned by their parents in the care of a mysterious figure whose lifestyle bordered on crime – their fate pieced together by the brother in later life – found the going too taxing and not very interesting, so gave up three-quarters way.

6) `When She Was Bad` by Tammy Cohen – isbn 9781784160197Black Swan p/b – © TC2016 -
- pulp fiction – office politics of the lower middle ranking workers who are also the sort of people who read this sort of book while commuting – this is the third disappointing book in a row – it made light holiday reading during our Moroccan trip in May, but I must switch back to serious stuff.

7) `Turbulence` by David Szalay – isbn 9781787331167 – J Cape h/b – © DS 2018 – 136 pp – after a crop of dull and uninspiring books, this slim offering by a previously Man Booker-shortlisted author made a delightful change – it is basically a relay race of the air, with one passenger handing over the baton, so to speak, to the next in a sequence of flights starting out from (and returning to) London through interconnected destinations across the world, the narrative thread linking the respective characters to their local geo-cultural settings.

8) `The Fox` by Frederick Forsyth – isbn 9780593080580 – Bantam h/b – © FF 2018 – 307 pp starts off well – with a useful insight into the working of the secret service network of MI5, MI6, GCHQ  and associated off-shoots and of their political masters – then slides into a poor script for an imagined scenario that taxes the reader`s credulity – expected better from a master of spy novels.  

9) `Close to the Edge` by Toby Faber – isbn 9781999613532 – Muswell Press – pb – 326 pp – © Faber Productions 2019 – this too turned out to be disappointing – was drawn to it when I heard an interview with the author, who used to be managing director of Faber & Faber, on a literary programme on Radio 4 – the `edge` is a reference to standing on a London tube platform where the narrator sees a man topple over in front of a train and get killed and the mystery is whether it was suicide or murder – we are witness to its detection but the plot becomes convoluted and the ending a dampener – a tale for teenagers really!

10) `Forward to Independence: My Memoirs` by Fitz de Souza – isbn 978-10-93146-88-2 – © FRSdeS 2019 – (self-published: Printed in Poland by Amazon Fulfillment) – 319 pp – a promising but a little disappointing read – notwithstanding the laudatory endorsements by Hilary Ng`weno, Lord Steel of Aikwood and Victoria Brittain – could have done with professional editing – that said, his personal and political trajectory covered familiar ground and as one who knew him during my time as a lawyer in Nairobi, a lot of the writing made sense, even if many assertions seemed doubtful and exaggerated – had hoped to do a proper review but there is a lot on record already and the impulse has waned.

11) `The Gift of Travel: The Best of Travellers` Tales` ed by Larry Habegger, James O`Reilly and Sean O`Reilly – no isbn – © 1998 Travellers Tales Inc – Cal USA – May 1998 – 225 pp – a collection of travellers` tales by an assortment of authors/contributors – fascinating … found  good to dip into at bedtime.

12) `The Disappearance of Emile Zola: Love, Literature and The Dreyfus Case` by Michael Rosen – isbn 978-0-571-31201-6 – Faber& F h/b – © MR 2017 – 302 PP – a fascinating study of Zola`s involvement with the campaign to clear Dreyfus`s name after his wrongful conviction – it was interesting to read about how he, Zola, was feted as a literary celebrity during his earlier 1893 visit – I was reminded of the Sultan of Zanzibar`s 1875 tour at the peak of Victorian grandeur (as recounted in Judy Aldrick`s The Sultan`s Spymaster, reviewed at p 126 of my book) only then having to lie low during his 9 month exile in 1899 at the centre of this tale – EXTRACTS from Emile Zola:

  at p 193: “Several questions raised by all this are about the movement of opinion.  Between, say, 1880 and 1900 were those members of literary groupings changing their attitude to the depiction of love, sex and class in literature?  Did enthusiasts of Zola convince those who disapproved? Was Zola`s work the catalyst for change – a process that runs through perhaps, D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce, all the way to the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960?  I suspect it was all these, with many nuanced variations in between.  … no single “Zola”, there were censored and uncensored works … the tide flowing from Flaubert, Maupassant and Zola to Hardy, Shaw and James.  Things were moving … a new `republic of letters` was taking place”;

  at p 216: Zola told Sherard [Robert Sherard, author of the biography of Zola in 1893] [as recounted in The Humanitarian, February 1898] “It seems incredible to me”, Zola said, “that one hundred years after the French Revolution, by which the equality of men was proclaimed and an end put to all enmities between races and creeds, it should be possible to raise up so many Frenchmen, grandsons of the Revolution, against other Frenchmen, because the latter are men of a different derivation, professing a different creed”. Anti-semitism had been accepted by the mass of the people, Zola claimed, as the “newest form of Socialism” [which equated capitalism with the Jews]; 

  at p 221 – oblique reference to Conan Doyle`s defence of “a foreign solicitor`s wrongful imprisonment a few years earlier” (as analogous to Zola`s defence of Dreyfus) - this was the case of George Edalji, subject of `Arthur and George` by Julian Barnes, noted in Annual Review of 2006 and in my book at p 165.
 Note: the Emile Zola was my `study` book during our 2 week cruise in November down to the Canaries – and the first completed work after my eye episode in June that has affected my reading of printed literature – but the ship (the Saga `Spirit of Discovery`) had an excellent library where I also managed to browse through the following books:
 (a) `The Last Hurrah: The 1947 Royal Tour of Southern Africa and The End of Empire` (or as in the spine with the subtitle `South Africa and The Royal Tour of 1947`) by Graham Viney – © GV 2018 – isbn  978-1-47214-318-1 – h/b – www.littlebrown.co.uk excellent work of reference for a study of SA politics and society (including racial divisions) – how the Royal Tour was seen as a reward for the country`s support for Britain`s war effort during WWII – 

 (b) `In the Shadow of the Raj: Derry Moore in India` - isbn: 978-3-7913-8332-3 publisher:  www.presetel.com – edited by Nathaniel Gaskell – coffee table size, with stunning b & w shots of people and places - EXTRACTS from  Mark Tulley`s Foreword:

“Many will argue that I am moved by Derry Moore`s photographs because I wallow in nostalgia for the Raj.  I may well be criticised for ignoring so much which needed to change in India, and has been changed by the fierce wind of globalisation.  There is an argument to say more needs to change.  I accept all this but I would still argue that it is in India`s interests and nature to go forward by evolution than revolution, to meet challenges to its culture by osmosis rather than surrender, to respect the past and accept the value of tradition alongside the need to change, to reject the black-and-white view of history and so concede that the British Raj was not an entirely black period in her history.  So I make no apologies for my nostalgia when I look at Derry Moore`s moving photographs of an India that I feel is passing away with too little regret.” 

 (c) `Blind Spot` by Teju Cole – forward by Siri Hustvedit – Faber & F - isbn 978-0-571-33501-5 – © TC 2017 – 325 pp – pictorial – PS by author `A Map of the World`, Brooklyn, March 2017: “In each place I have visited, I have used my camera as an extension of my memory.  The images are a tourist`s pictures in this sense.  They also have an inquiring feeling to them and, in some cases, showed me more about the places than I might have seen otherwise”.  And the proof lies in the pudding – the catalogue of all the varied images from across the world is simply superb.

 (d) `The Good Immigrant USA: 26 Writers Reflect on America` ed by Nilesh Shukla and Chemene Suleyman – isbn 978-6-349-70036-6 – www.littlebrown.co.uk – enlightened discourse.

 (e) `Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored` by Jeffrey Boakye –isbn 978-0-349-70055-7 - © JB 2019 – www.littlebrown.co.ukas the title implies!  Informative and challenging.

 (f) `Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves` ed by Glory Edim –isbn 978 1 409 18927 5 0 – h/b - © GE 2019 + individual contributors – 249 pp – www.orionbooks.co.uk – Intro by editor refers to authors like Toni Morrison, Zora Neal Hurston, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou – and many more – “as black women we define ourselves for ourselves ... not looking for validation because we have one another.  We have always had to take care of ourselves … creating our own boundaries”.  As Toni Morrison states in `Beloved` : “Definitions belong to the definer, not the defined”.

13) `A Delhi Obsession` by M G Vassani – isbn 9780385692854 (hardcover) – Doubleday Canada (Penguin RH Canada) – © MGV 2019 – 279 pp – how extraordinary to end this year`s reading list with this by one of my favourite authors – the story line of romance and fantasy interspersed with snippets of MGV`s own life trajectory makes easy reading, though set against the rise of Hindu nationalism in India where the main action, so to speak, takes place and where as he observes in the epilogue, “you could not, as a person of Indian origin, just be, but were always branded communally – Hindu or Muslim in my experience – no matter your beliefs, background, upbringing, complexities, peculiarities” rings so true, especially at this time (Dec 2019) when the controversy over restrictive citizenship laws there is raging.    

(Note: As usual, an eclectic selection, yes, though I was disappointed with quite a few of my choices. I certainly could have done with more time to read one or two of those that I had a look at on the ship I am now entering a phase when reading will become a little less and so hopefully more selective and concentrated.)

Films, Plays, Concerts etc

1) Fri 04 Jan – NFT3 - `The Passenger` (Dir Michelangelo Antonioni – Italy, France, Spain 1975, with Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, et al) – one of his much acclaimed film noir of the period – with a contemporary take on African politics and intrigues – a thriller in the classic mode of our hero (a young Nicholson) first exchanging identities with a dead man involved in gun running and then trying to thwart those chasing him –against a stunning/ running sequence of escapades through the Moroccan, Spanish and Italian landscapes – an intense experience – this was one of those standard NFT retrospectives of old movies – 8/10

2) Thu 31 Jan – Odeon Epsom – NT LIVE - `I `m Not Running` - live screening of the political play by David Hare – excellent – superb performances – intellectually gripping and though-provoking -  on a snowy evening too! – echoes of the drama lingered on for long -  9/10   

3) Thu 07 Feb – NFT Studio - `Burning` (`Beoning`) – Dir: Lee Chang-dong (S`th Korea, Japan, Australia – Korean/Eng subt - 148 mins – a brilliant cinematic rendering of a plot loosely based on Haruki Murakami`s story `Barn Burning` first published in the New Yorker in the early 90s – replete with metaphors and literary allusions – the story centres around three troubled young people whose lives interact with tragic consequences -  8/10

4) Wed 27 Feb – NFT1 – Wall + Q&A (with David Hare and Director Cam Christiansen – Canada 2017 – 82 mins) Preview of this animated documentary about the impact of the Wall between Palestinians and Israelis – extraordinary in its style, presentation and content – with onscreen dialogue and discussion with protagonists on both sides and people like David Grossman – stayed on the for the Q&A but left midway because the talk was much too much about the technique of the production and not so much about the underlying issues, which they may have tackled later, who knows; I had gone prepared with something to contribute based on my review of Edward Said, The Last Interview (the 2004 documentary of his last interview) -  7/10

5) Tue 05 Mar – ICA - `Hale County This Morning, This Evening` - Dir: Ramell Ross, USA, 2018, 76 mins – impressionist documentary of contemporary quotidian Black lives in Alabama – with images of family, social, sporting, and other normal daily activities – 7/10

6) Wed 09 Apr – ICA - `3 Faces` - Dir: Jafar Panahi – Iran 2018 – Farsi & Turkish – Eng sub-ttl - 101 mins – another road movie by this celebrated Iranian director banned from his own country – this one takes us into the depths of the Azeri-speaking rural region of NW Iran – the depth of cultural isolation and backwardness is at the centre of the story, throwing up issues of gender inequality and the thwarting of a young girl`s ambition to go to an art college in Tehran – the film won the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes – I didn`t think it merited that – the narrative was rather disjointed and the editing rather poor -  6/10  

7) Wed 17 Apr – NFT3 - `The River` - Dir: Jean Renoir – USA 1951 – a classic Renoir of the `50s – filmed wholly in India – based on Rumer Godden`s novel – she also co-wrote the screenplay with Renoir – Satyajit Ray assisted in the direction, though not credited, which led to his, Ray`s, flowering as a film maker in his own right – a superb cast and narrative – the film was introduced by academic Varsha Panjwani who made much of the character Melanie (played rather woodenly I thought by Radha) who was not in the original novel but was brought into the screen version as the Indian presence (she as the child of an English father, a liberal philosophically inclined widower and an Indian mother who had long died); a fine production, with colour and complex characterisation of the three teenage girls at the centre of the story all in love with the visiting young American army veteran with a wooden leg – charmingly told against a realistic backdrop of Bengali life and culture -  8/10        
8) Wed 08 May  - NFT2 - `Maborosi` - Dir: Hirokazu Kore-Eda – Japan 1995 – Eng subT – 110 mins – a happy marriage with a newly arrived baby is suddenly at an end because of the husband`s unexplained death – accident or suicide? – a meditative trail through the widow`s life after that trying to come to terms with the loss – remarriage and relocation from Osaka to a rural coastal settlement – and the portrayal of a new life there with the new husband a widower with a young daughter and how they all adapt to living together – beautifully shot to show the beauty and the grimness of their locale against the elements -  8/10

9) Tue 14 May – Epsom Odeon - `All My Sons` by Arthur Miller – NFT Live screening from The Old Vic – an absolutely superb, riveting, gripping production of this Miller classic (Dir: Jeremy Herrin and Dir for Screen: Ross MacGibbon) with simply superlative performances by Bill Pullman as Joe, Keller, Sally Field as Kate Keller, Colin Morgan as Chris Keller and Jenna Coleman as Ann Deever – we came away enriched and enlightened (and remembered the first time we saw it performed live at the National Theatre in Nairobi in 1964 as a courting couple!) -  R & K -  10/10  

10) Sun 2 Jun – RFH Concert (Philharmonia Orchestra - Pablo Heras-Casado conductor - Nicola Benedetti violin) : Mendelssohn (Fingal`s Cave overture), Bruch`s Violin Concerto No. 1, Tchaikovski`s 4th Symph – simply superb - 10/10

11) Sat 29 Jun – NFT1 - `Photograph`  - LIFF closing night gala - (Dir: Ritesh Batra, of `The Lunchbox` fame) – but for someone whose international directorial credentials have now been firmly established, with `Our Souls at Night` starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford and `The Sense of an Ending`, based on Julian Barnes novel, starring Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling and Michelle Dockery, I was disappointed in this moving which I found lacking in many respects – I may write a proper review of it, for now I would give it -  5/10  

12) Tue 27 Aug – NAT THEATRE - `The Secret River` https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-secret-river  the Sydney Theatre Company production of this based on the historical novel by Kate Grenville which I had read many year ago – impressive, though at time a bit stilted or overdone, and sometimes the Aussie speech was difficult to follow – on the whole good - 6/10

13) Mon 07 Oct – LFF – EGC - `Blackbird`  (dir: Roger Michell – Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Lindsay Duncan) - USA, 2019, 97 mins - drama of SS`s declared intention to die at a pre-arranged time of her choosing surrounded by family – relationships dynamics – beautifully acted – superb – 9/10

14) Tue 08 Oct – LFF – NFT1 - `Guest of Honour` (dir: Atom Egoyan – David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliveira, Luke Wilson) – Canada, 2019, 105 mins) – a family drama with a touch of mystery, a food inspector`s life and work revealed through flashbacks from a daughter`s perspective as narrated to a priest engaged by her to conduct his funeral, with interesting twists and turns – good – 7/10
15) Thu 06 Dec – ICA - `The Irishman` (dir: Martin Scorsese – Robert Di Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino + others) – USA 2019 – 209 mins – wow!  Had some misgiving about spending a whole afternoon seeing this three and a half hour movie but the ICA special member`s offer was too good to miss, as was the film itself – based on real life events surrounding the mafia and Jimmy Hoffa`s Teamsters Union shenanigans – Di Niro, who played the cold-blooded hit man Frank Sheeran was superb (and while his reign of terrible murders and accompanying violence was sickening at first, one could not but be drawn into the flow of the narrative of crime and gangster politics after Joe Pesci entered the scene as the boss of Pennsylvanian crime family and later when Al Pacino appears as Jimmy Hoffa and then the tale gets too gripping to worry about the morality of their crimes – towards the end Di Niro`s character evokes a sort of empathy even, in his search for salvation for all the wrongs he has committed – this is a film which I think will attract Oscar nominations for the plot, direction and acting and the screenplay – well let`s see – 9/10

(Note: Again, as usual, a wide and varied selection, and one with which I am very pleased, though I could have done more on the musical front. As it happens, there are one or two films which I wish I could see at the year`s end but that alas is not possible now.) 

Lectures, Talks, Events etc

Sat 1 Jun – H&W Library – GLA Event: docu-presentation by Dr Renu Modi (Professor at Centre for African Studies at University of Mumbai) of the trans-Indian Ocean Khanga and Kitenge phenomenon history and contemporary manifestations + talk by Rohit Vadhwana, First Secretary Indian High Commission, UK = Q&A                                             

Sat 13 Jul – LSE – Book launch of Fitz de Souza`s `Forward to Independence: My Memoirs` = Q&A

Miscellany and Conclusion 

I could repeat almost word for word what I wrote at the end of my review of 2018.  Fundamentally nothing much has changed, but as far as outreach activities are concerned inertia, advancing age and a continuing deterioration in road and transport networks have all had a negative impact. However I continue to write my AwaaZ columns and other bits and pieces here and there, and so the intellectual life remains in place.

The most important and significant event this year of course has been the publication at last my book – see the last post.  Its effect is still reverberating.  I have given two talks about it to an appreciative audience and am hoping to engage in more such appearances. I have also received good feedback from a number of people who have read the complete book or parts of it.  To be quite frank, I am also enjoying re-reading the finished (published) version myself from time to time.  As to what is to become of my vast collection of papers and other material, I don`t have the energy or the inclination to think of what to do about them just yet. 

And so we come to the end of this year and on to the next - 2020. I have always felt a little excitement at the prospect of reaching this millennial milestone; it has a touch of magic and conveys a sense of balance and equanimity, and not just in terms of vision.  One can only hope that global politics as well as interpersonal relations all around will realign accordingly. Happy New Year! 

(c) 2019
Surrey, England



Saturday, 7 December 2019

My book

Gosh, another nearly six months have passed since my last post, but then I have been otherwise occupied!  How so?  Well, at last my book has been published and while I will write more about it in my annual review for this year at the end of the month, right now I can do no better than reproduce the publishers` plug here below: 


Ramnik Shah


Ramnik Shah is a critic and commentator and over the years has written extensively in various legal journals, national newspapers and elsewhere on, among other things, migration and diaspora-related issues. Although now long retired from professional practice as an English solicitor, he continues to pen articles, blogs, book and film reviews and other material in different forums. He is on the editorial board of Bloomsbury Professional’s Journal of Immigration Asylum and Nationality Law and a regular columnist and contributor in AwaaZ, a cultural magazine published in Nairobi, Kenya.


This is a unique and varied collection of writings, spread over a half century, on wide-ranging subjects under the banner of a child of the British Empire. On its metropolitan home front, the Empire is of course long gone, with little left by way of folk memory. While it does not figure in our national conversation much, its legacy still lives on in many forms. More to the point, its historical significance is now being increasingly invoked and revived by writers with an immigrant background.

This selective compilation falls into that genre. It is not a fictional narrative of a singular journey from out there to here, as it were, but rather a kaleidoscopic overview of the postcolonial movement into Britain of the East African (EA) Asians from a variety of historical, legal and cultural perspectives. This is encompassed in a mix of articles, magazine columns and other material and in the numerous letters in The Times and other newspapers. All these deal with different aspects of the whole EA Asian and indeed global migration phenomenon. Buried in there are snippets of the author’s own trajectory from birth in colonial Kenya to eventual settlement in the UK. The texts also delve into his broad hinterland through an eclectic array of book and film reviews, blogs, travelogues and academic papers.

Empire’s Child provides a fascinating glimpse into the making of Britain’s multicultural society.

Friday, 12 July 2019

`Photograph` reviewed

`Photograph` directed by Ritesh Batra had its London premiere on Saturday 29 June as the closing night gala event of the 2019 London Indian Film Festival. I was drawn to it because of Batra`s previous success with `The Lunchbox` (reviewed on this blog at http://ramnikshah.blogspot.com/2014/04/) which had brought him universal acclaim. Since then he has consolidated his fame internationally with films such as `Our Souls at Night`, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and `The Sense of an Ending` (based on a novel by Julian Barnes, which I had lauded in my 2011 Annual Review at http://ramnikshah.blogspot.com/2011/) also with top British actors. So his directorial credentials are well established.  For `Photograph` he returned to his Indian roots and a desi tale and landscape in every sense.  I however found it disappointing.

According to the programme notes, what Batra wanted was to move away from the typical Bollywood fare of “plucky heroines who defy tradition and family” while being “mindlessly pursued” by presumably vacuous men and who indulge in their youthful shenanigans with “a goofy group of friends”, to create  “an independent arthouse film” depicting “a very real story about people living in Mumbai of today”.  So what is it about?

The photograph of the title is the result of a chance encounter between “Rafi, a Muslim villager living in the city trying to scratch out a living as a street photographer” and “Miloni, a shy and traditionally raised middle-class Mumbaikar”.  That happens when Miloni is dreamily walking through the crowds around the Gateway of India, having apparently disembarked from a ferry, and Rafi accosts her with his pitch to have her picture taken.  She reluctantly agrees; he takes a succession of shots as professional photographers do and while he is busy processing them she decamps and so he is literally left holding the photograph! 

Then we learn about their back stories.  She appears to be in her early 20s, a graduate student doing a training course for the chartered accountancy profession, who lives at home with her family – parents and a younger brother – and a live-in cook servant.  He on the other hand has no domestic life as such, living as he does in a communal setting with a group of single men, all from the same ethnic/religious background.  But he does have a close relationship with his grandmother, back in their distant ancestral village, who had brought him and his siblings up after their parents early demise and who continues to remain a strong, even controlling, influence, constantly urging him to find someone to marry.  Most of his daily conversations with his after-work companions, as well as phone/text exchanges with his grandmother, revolve around his marriage prospects, with much leg-pulling and banter.

Left holding the unclaimed photograph of Miloni, he decides to use it to tell his grandmother and his friends that she is the one whom he has chosen to marry and from there on the story takes on a surreal dimension as he builds an imaginary scenario and persuades Miloni (when they subsequently meet again, more about which later) to go along with that.

Miloni is indeed the proverbial dutiful, docile daughter who does what she is told or expected to do.  Very early on we see her trying on an item of clothing in a fashion store and to accept it without question when suggested by an elder.  The few home scenes are mostly of the family at the dinner table, with very few close-ups. Miloni remains largely silent or monosyllabic when asked some question by her father.  At one point, her little sibling even makes a witty remark, but the mother rarely features in any of their interactions.  And the daily evening ritual ends with Miloni seen diligently engrossed in her `home work`, fussed over like an adolescent by the diligent cook maid.  

As in `The Lunchbox` and `Our Soles at Night`, and even `The Sense of an Ending`, so in `Photograph` the underlying theme is of how the fate of two strangers, from entirely different backgrounds, whose paths are otherwise unlikely to cross, becomes intertwined by fortuitous circumstances which propel them towards a meeting of minds.  There is nothing wrong with that hallowed formula  Here the narrative is driven by the poetry of imagination rather than anything else, for in the real world such a construct would be fraught with imponderables.

Is `Photograph` then “a very real story about people living in Mumbai today”?  In these days of the digital camera, smartphones and selfies, all of which are found in abundance in India, and in particular in the megacity metropolis of Mumbai, do street photographers ply their trade in the way we see in the film?  Maybe they do but would a young woman of Miloni`s education and social status have got caught up in a commercial photo-op like that?  We know that she did, for reasons of her own inner insecurity.  Fair enough, but then she ran off and in getting to the sequel to it there is no footage of her reflecting on what had happened.Indeed, throughout she is presented as a silent brooding introvert, whose private thoughts and feelings are shrouded in a mist of mystery.

And Batra also seems to have made a deliberate decision to underplay what would cinematically have been a dramatic moment of the two of them meeting again.  In fact that part and what would have passed between them is glossed over completely, for what we see when they are next shown together is him briefing her about the imminent arrival on the scene of his grandmother and what she should be told about how they met.  As to why Miloni is so willing to play along with the deception, again we are left to guess. 

And then the pace of the movie gathers momentum.  We see a lot more of the grandmother with Rafi alone and with him and Miloni, eating out, shopping and talking over several days. She even presses Miloni to accept a gift, as a token of what she thinks is going to be her and Rafi`s union.  On one of their outings together, Miloni`s family maid sees her with Rafi posing for a photograph on a beach.  At home, during their post-dinner nightly routine, Miloni tells the maid Rafi was not her boyfriend; the maid is sympathetic and assures her the secret was safe with her.  And as an aside, Miloni expresses a desire to visit the maid`s home village to see how her folks live, to the latter`s obvious delight. That is not the only glimpse we get of her mental state.  Another is when, while she and Rafi are out and about late one evening on a bus, we see her reaching out to him and the two of them sit together gingerly touching hands.  The grandmother eventually susses out that Miloni is not what she has been made out to be and tells Rafi what she thinks of it.

How was it that a `traditionally raised middle-class` Mumbai girl could spend so much time away from home, other than at college, stretching into evenings, without being asked about what she might have been doing and where?  Unlike Rafi, she did not have any friends of her age. What she told the maid about Rafi not being her boyfriend hardly counted as sharing confidences with someone of her own ilk. She had no social life; she was a loner – and essentially lonesome and possibly bored.  That explained why she got drawn into a contrived situation with Rafi, despite everything that set them apart.  He was noticeably older, more mature and worldly, though inexperienced in male-female dynamics.  The programme notes mentioned “differences in their religious, economic and cultural backgrounds, and even skin colour”! Desi Indian preoccupation with colour notwithstanding, as far as I was concerned they both had the same shade of light brown complexion on the cinema screen!  And then there were the classroom scenes of accountancy students during lectures.  These were simply unbelievable. Even our ten year olds would not be subjected to the kind of didactic teaching and discipline, not to mention meek passivity with which it was received, that we saw there.

To be fair, the whole match-making episode and the predatory lecturer`s crude attempt to woo Miloni were a realistic representation of true-life situations, but these were outweighed by the other factors.  The movie could have been better served by spirited performances of the two principal characters. Their deadpan acting and lack of animation generally did nothing to convey the nuances and subtleties of their emotions and did not engage the viewer.  This could be because, according to the film`s credits, there was no singular script writer, only a script supervisor, and that might have affected the direction.    

All of this marred what would otherwise have been a classic tale of two young or relatively young people bravely moving away from the limitations of their society`s norms and their own constricted lives to experience the stirrings of romance.  True, this is not a Bollywood style extravaganza, but even for an independent arthouse film there is something to be said for verisimilitude.  Chance encounters between unlikely people happen all the time in all societies and are the stuff of creative fiction in literature and other forms of art.  In this film however while we could understand why Rafi fell for her, it was difficult to figure out what she saw in him, given all the basic differences between them?  But that of course was the essence of the artistic conundrum.

© 2019
England, Surrey