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Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years
Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years

Photos don’t lie

The contrast between the sterile neatness of a posed picture and the messiness of real life in films such as Kapoor & Sons and 45 Years

Broadly speaking, Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) can be described as a well-paced drama-comedy about a tumultuous family reunion, complete with sibling rivalry, unspoken grievances and skeletons rattling out of closets. But in a minor key it is also about photographs and pictorial representations. There are images that shock (hell breaks loose when Sunita, played by Ratna Pathak Shah, sees pictures of her “perfect baccha" Rahul with his not-so-suitable lover), images that are memory-triggers (a life-sized cutout of a bathing Mandakini from Ram Teri Ganga Maili makes a birthday present for naughty old Dadu), and the whole film can be seen as moving—through a series of missteps and misunderstandings—towards the creation of a perfect family photo. Which will turn out to be not so perfect after all.

During an early attempt to take this picture, clouds gather, literally and otherwise—there is so much angst in the air that Sunita can no longer put on a happy face, she stomps off while the photographer is toying with his viewfinder. It’s a reminder of another scene from a film featuring secrets, lies, a downpour and Rajat Kapoor being creepy: In Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001), a young woman is discomfited when she has to pose near an uncle who had molested her as a child. At the end of Kapoor & Sons, the group picture is successfully taken, but it is incomplete because one member of the family is now absent and has to be replaced, goofily, by a cutout—as in life, tragedy and comedy occupy the same frame. To me, that scene felt like a distorting-mirror version of the football-huddle closing shots in 1980s masala films, where the surviving good guys got together and beamed at the camera, the comic sidekick dispensed a PJ from the edge of the frame, and everyone laughed stiffly—never mind that a beloved mother or friend had been sacrificed to the villain’s final bullet seconds earlier.

What is a perfect photo anyway, and can it ever be honest? There’s an old truism about how porn sets impossible, unreal standards (“I didn’t know they could be so big," goggles 90-year-old Dadu, referring to artificially enhanced breasts in the smutty film he is watching), but everyday photos involving everyday situations can be misleading in their own ways. Recent years have seen psychological studies of social media as an envy-and-depression-creating machine which gives the impression that other people’s lives are packed with “Kodak moments", but long before Facebook existed most of us had evidence of at least one notable photo where we were grinning at the camera even though we know that life was unhappy or complicated at the time. And one thing Batra’s film does well is to catch the contrast between the sterile neatness of a posed picture and the messiness of real life, where a dozen conflicting emotions may be at play at any given point.

Yet it is much too easy to scoff at photo-taking and to undermine the value of pictures (even the not-so-truthful ones), as I realized while watching a sentimental scene in a movie that is determinedly cool and unsentimental in most ways: the new British film 45 Years, with Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in great fettle as Kate and Geoff, a couple whose 45th wedding anniversary celebrations are darkened by the news that the body of his ex-girlfriend—who died in a mountaineering accident more than 50 years earlier—has just been discovered.

The scene I’m talking about comes late in the film, when Kate and Geoff’s friends gift them a large board with a collage of their photos taken over the decades, including some that they had never seen before. Earlier in the narrative, we learnt that they have hardly any photos of themselves: When they were younger, they were too hip, too “cool" to waste time posing for pictures (or asking for copies of the ones taken by friends)—it seemed so much more important to experience a moment rather than stare into a mechanical eye. But now, nearly half a century into their relationship and in the twilight of their lives, they regret this lack of tangible depiction of their time together: a picture of a cherished outing or milestone, or a much adored dog when it was a pup. For the newly insecure Kate, this is made worse by the fact that her husband does have some vivid old photos of his girlfriend on their last trek.

And so, there is an urgent poignancy to the scene where they gaze at the photo collection they have just been gifted, murmuring softly about the many memories that are coming alive. It is not all that far in tone from the brief scene in Kapoor & Sons where a long-married, forever-bickering couple looks through a dusty album and perhaps wonders if the good moments outweighed the bad in the long run. Do these scenes depict self-deception, validation, escapism, or a mix of all these things? It’s hard to tell.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.

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