A Review of the Documentary Raghu Rai – An Unframed Portrait


Avani Rai’s documentary about his dad, photographer Raghu Rai, follows the artist in action and offers some history lessons on India and the region where everyday struggle feels so familiar to many. In her debut film Raghu Rai – An Unframed Portrait, screened at Nordisk Panorama, she meets the challenge to balance between the role of a daughter and a film-maker. This sometimes seems unmanageable, since a dad cannot stop worrying about his daughter and a teacher would be always giving feedback and some advice to his pupils. As informative and inspiring as it is, because of the heavy reliance on text displayed on the screen, the cinematic experience continually interrupted, even though it could easily serve the purpose of enhancing the power and the importance of (still) photography.

India, a battlefield for traditions and progress, provides plenty of issues to talk about, and the troubled history and the current situation of Kashmir is one of those. Despite being a highly militarized area, pro-independent protesters will probably never give up the fight, and Raghu Rai will always be there to document that. The Indian photographer has been showing the horror of war and the politically motivated violence against civilians for decades now. The film not only portrays him as a photojournalist constantly capturing the truth but also catches his sense of humour and adds multiple layers to his witty and often critical civil persona.

Without the director’s relationship to her subject, the film would have possibly resulted in something different, and maybe more boundaries would have been set. Raghu’s remarks, like ‘I am not your father, I am your character’, and instructions usually wrapped as criticism, draw attention to Avani’s struggle as a film-maker. She is clearly more than an observer, she is part of the story, the student who is trying her wings, following in her dad’s footsteps. The dynamics between them gives the base for the linear narrative, contextualising Raghu’s story and India’s (and the region’s) history. The difficulty of filming one’s parent is underscored, as the main subject also happens to be an excellent photographer with a tremendous amount of knowledge of visual languages.

Creative expressions and freedom, as well as the documentary genre and the act of capturing the truth become part of the conversation around the film co-produced by Finland, India and Norway. Explaining the origin of his photos, Raghu touches upon the power of politics in India – and in the world in general. Journalists are supposed to speak truth to power and are more likely to be targeted by the political or economic elite. Raghu freezes the moments of truth focusing on events many wish to be erased from or never written into history. Looking at the terror through his eyes might deaden the feelings evoked in the viewers, but the photo exhibition on screen can imprison one’s mind. Yet to provide context, the information in the form of inserts could have been smoothly conveyed by Raghu’s monologues or a voice-over by Anavi instead.

Raghu Rai – An Unframed Portrait shares a lot of similarities with The Night We Fell by Danish film-maker Cille Hannibal, who made a film about her mother. Avani Rai’s first attempt to tell a story using the medium of film is promising, and she has probably tackled the greatest task ever, namely filming her photographer dad. Considering the film style, she plays safely but her artistic vision is definitely present.

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.