Sanya Malhotra's character in Photograph must set a precedent for layered 'introverts' in Bollywood
Sanya Malhotra does not play Miloni like either a victim of societal pressure or a closet bombshell waiting to graduate into an extrovert.
When we first see Miloni, she stares blankly at herself, fixing her gaze on the pink kurti that her mother and sister show her at a garment store. It is only when her mother pokes her that Miloni snaps out of her state and nods gently, approving their choice — as if she ever had any.
Ritesh Batra's female protagonist in his recent directorial Photograph is one of the most refreshing in recent memory. Having lived a sheltered life in a middle-class Gujarati family in Mumbai, Miloni has always been a demure, obedient girl. But Sanya Malhotra does not play to the gallery by painting her as either a victim or a closet bombshell waiting to get unveiled. She merely channels her most silent part to put forth a girl we all know and we all struggle to demystify.
Immediately after we see Miloni as a lost soul at the garment store, we see her enjoying a ferry ride at Gateway of India. The same girl who could not be easily spotted in the store seconds ago is seen dominating the frame set in the ferry. In that frame, she appears as the focal point of not only the camera but also the universe. When she is not surrounded by familiar people or places, she commands attention through her piercing presence. But she is no Ved (Ranbir Kapoor's character) from Imtiaz Ali's 2015 coming-of-age film Tamasha. Unlike him, she does not transform into a personality poles apart from her own when transported to an unfamiliar environment. She continues to be the same self, rather than letting an alter ego take over.
In this process (or the lack of it), Miloni comes across as an unapologetic introvert. She allows her pleasant countenance and charming silence do most of the talking. She is the kind of friend who would invite you to her place so that you can spend a quiet yet meditative evening together. Her unwillingness to strike a conversation does not imply a dull life. She wears kurtis and T-shirts decked in resplendent colours. This is not a distraction to mask her insecurity. In fact, she has come to terms with her reserved nature and does not feel the need to shield it through colourful outfits. Colour is as much a part of her personality as is silence.
Dinner table conversations reveal Miloni's backstory and the kind of girl she used to be. She was a stage actor but eventually gave that hobby up because of parental pressure to clear her Chartered Accountancy exams. However, we do not see her being bitter about the sacrifice. Her ability to transport herself to a different world, while she is physically present inside a populated dining hall, suggests she is still very much an actor in her head. Her putting up a happy, normal front is not a facade. It is not 'acting'. This is how she has always been. As far as the creative release of the actor within her is concerned, it gets channeled through her head in some parallel world.
However, when Miloni gets a chance to get 'real' with her creative release, she grabs it with both hands. When Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a poor photographer at Gateway of India requests her to act as his fiance to keep his ailing grandmother happy, she obliges. What draws her to this exploration is not merely an opportunity to 'act' outside her head but also the fact that Rafi never makes the arrangement come across as transactional. Additionally, she gets a chance to interact with his grandmother, who is around the same age as her late grandfather was, when he passed away. It may be assumed that the grandfather's death might have caused Miloni to recede into her imaginary world, but her celestial poise suggests she is not as big a victim of her circumstances as she could have been.
Another motivation behind enrolling herself for this 'acting' sojourn are the photographs. When she first meets Rafi, he offers to click her picture in a way that the wind in her hair and the sun on her face would get 'crystallised for eternity'. She later describes that photograph as the one in which she looks happier than she actually is. The reason may have been Rafi's pure gaze, or just good 'wind' and 'sun', or it could be something deeper. Her perception echoes with that of the viewers who constantly feel Miloni is happier than she has to be. In every frame of the film, she is photographed with great detail and from flattering angles. Even in close-ups, it is a struggle to get into her head because her still face does not reveal much. The only emotion it gives out is unwavering stoicism that stems from a mind at peace.
Later in the narrative, she confesses she often dreams of living in a village. While she might be doing that in the midst of a bustling Mumbai as well, she is tempted to translate the dream into reality once she meets Rafi. She hopes to live in his ancestral village since he also fulfills her wish of 'acting' in a real world. She breaks the ice with her house help (Geetanjali Kulkarni), telling her that she will visit her village one day. She also relishes street food that Rafi's grandmother treats her to though ends up falling in after enjoying a gola. She is basically a village girl born in a metropolis.
Towards the end of the film, when she asks an agitated Rafi how he is and he replies with a "main theek hoon" (I am fine), she responds with a "main bhi theek hoon" (I am fine as well). This instinctive response comes from a place of realisation that she can echo what floats in her head out loud. She does not need to keep her Zen-like state confined to her head. She must celebrate the fact that she is doing fine despite all her societal limitations. She embraces her imperfections and also makes sure she tells the world about it. When a fellow BEST bus passenger asks her if she is the girl who adorns the poster of a CA coaching class as the "topper", she refuses. Through a simple no, she tells everyone, and herself, that she is indeed the free-spirited village girl who inhabits her head. Or that her primary identity does not lie in the incidental fact that she topped a CA class.
Had she been left to her primal instincts, she would have never made it to the CA class. She is much more than a studious girl who breaks out of her image. She continues to be the CA topper but also continues to be an actor or a farmer that she has always been in her subconscious. The lines between the imaginary and the real blur when she realises she can live with multiple identities, and choose the one she wants to be identified with. Unlike Naina Talwar (Deepika Padukone's character) from Ayan Mukerji's 2013 romantic comedy Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, she does not metamorphosise from a bespectacled moody medical student into a Manish Malhotra sari-clad confident woman, who throws her boring glasses away before dancing to 'Balam Pichkari'. Interestingly, Miloni never wore glasses to begin with.
All images from YouTube.
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