Photo: A searing film on the long walk home for migrant labourers during Covid pandemic

Directed by debut filmmaker Utsav Gonwar, the film is a haunting reminder of how much of India’s poor walked back home in 2020.
A still from Kannada film ‘Photo’
A still from Kannada film ‘Photo’IMDb
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Many have forgotten the initial awful days of the Covid pandemic from March to May 2020, months when the Indian summer is at its worst, when migrant labourers from the hinterland made their long journey home. When hundreds dropped dead on the roads from sheer exhaustion, or on rail tracks, run over by trains. Many of them were nameless, mere numbers being added to the long list of people dying. What if you knew them? What if each one of them had a backstory? What if one of them, from Maski in Raichuru district, just wanted to see the Vidhana Soudha?

In Utsav Gonwar’s searing Photo, we join Durgya (Veeresh Gonwar), the naughty kid whose only dream is to see the Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru, and his father Gyana (a brilliantly helpless Mahadev Hadapad), who works as a construction labourer in Bengaluru, on their long walk home. There’s a spring in their step initially and they even manage to smile and laugh. And then the reality of the sun blazing over fields of rich black soil takes over.

Four years is a long time, and those traumatic months of the Covid pandemic have been coated with fine dust, and the media and the narrative have managed to convince people that the virus has been conquered.

Photo reminds us of what happened. That people lit lamps and burst crackers, even when they ignored the calls of their employees seeking payment. That no one thought twice before walking around clanging steel plates while chanting Go Corona Go! That many hardened their hearts to not feel any empathy. And, some of those who did help used it for social media popularity.

We all tend to look at highways as wonderful infrastructure, butter-like roads on which vehicles zip smoothly. What about the pedestrian, specifically a pedestrian with a child who has been forced to walk home hundreds of kilometres, simply because someone in authority decided the cities must shut down and so must transport, and that rural labour must go back home.

Photo shows you what a tar road looks like when you walk on it. How desolate the highways look when you cross them using your own two feet. How long the ribbons of a black road seem to two terribly tired people.

Photo might remind you of P Vinothraj’s much-feted Tamil film Pebbles — after all, both are about the journeys of fathers with their sons, walking across an arid landscape. But where Pebbles was about simmering anger and a walk towards a woman who chose to leave home, Photo is about love and affection amid trying circumstances, and a desperate walk to get back to Gangamma (an utterly natural Sandhya Arakera), the responsible wife and mother. You almost understand why Prakash Raj wanted to present Photo. A month into the lockdown, he had helped out a group of 43 people walking on the Bengaluru-Mumbai highway and sheltered them at his farm for a while before ensuring they got home safe.

Photo works because you are invested in Durgya’s simple dream, which was triggered by seeing a poster of the Vidhana Soudha. All he wants is to go to Bengaluru to see his father and the magnificent building, and he’s taken there by an elder from the village when schools declare a holiday due to Covid-19. His crushing disappointment, his natural curiosity, his single-minded devotion to his dream… Veeresh brings alive Durgya.

Gyana is that father who is forced to work far away from home to settle loans. And Gangamma’s lot is to look after her Durgya, who happily uses a cuss word when he’s upset, and wait for her husband to return. These are the people that our cinema has almost forgotten. And they manage to find little reasons to smile even amid their poverty. At one stage, Gyana lies to Durgya that they are on their way to see the Soudha. A stranger sitting next to them in the van confirms this, and the two grown-ups share a smile over a white lie. The look on Gyana’s face when another passenger tells someone over phone that they’ve long left Bengaluru is priceless. He tries hard to not meet his crushed son’s eyes.

During their journey, the father and son meet some kind people too — the cops who put them in a passerby’s car, the man who does not stop his car but calls the ambulance…

Utsav has a fabulous tech team that gets his vision. This is not a pretty film, it is not a film where the visuals are awe-inspiring. It is instead a film where the cinematography (Dinesh Divakaran) shows you how small Gyana and his son are in the face of such a mammoth crisis and how unfriendly the surroundings. Art director Goutham Soratoor makes you feel the heat and life in a village that has not seen rain in a while, and a home that requires constant tending to. Composer Ravi Hiremath respects silence. A lot. And editor Shivaraj Mehu paces the film beautifully, letting it breathe when it has to, and turning a sprint across a field to meet an oncoming car into one filled with urgency.

When the end credits rolled, I was a teary mess. Photo is a tribute to all those who walked back home and reached alive or dead, only trusting the government, because they believed that the ‘Government’s work is God’s work’, something the Vidhana Soudha poster in Durgya’s classroom says. It was a trust broken many times over.

Subha J Rao is an entertainment journalist covering Tamil and Kannada cinema and is based out of Mangaluru, Karnataka.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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