Independent Indian romance favors simple interaction over lavish affairs
Directed by Ritesh Batra
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra,
Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a struggling street photographer in Mumbai. He haunts the local tourist attractions offering cheap digital photographs to visitors. He lives in a crowded flat with a bunch of other young men, all hustling to make a rupee in the big city. Back in his home village where he sends all his earnings, Rafi’s grandmother frets over his life. Her first and foremost worry is that he’s not married. (Tragedy!) Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a city gal, born and bred. But she’s also under the thumb of her fretful and controlling family. In her younger days, she dreamed of becoming an actress. But now mom and dad have her buckling down and taking exams to become a chartered accountant. (Fun times!) Although she’s young and pretty, Miloni’s face looks like it’s forgotten how to crack a smile. (Rafi’s face is, as a friend describes it, “black like doomsday.”) These two lost and lonely souls cross paths in writer-director Ritesh Batra’s old-fashioned indie romance Photograph.
Rafi and Miloni meet at Mumbai’s iconic Gateway of India. He gives her the usual patter about capturing the moment, about remembering the sun on her face, the wind in her hair. Even though there’s nothing remotely special about the moment for her, the sales pitch strikes a chord. She gets her picture taken, but is called away before she can pay for it. Both photographer and subject find it hard to forget the chance encounter, however. In separate parts of town, they stare at the titular object trying to work out their individual feelings and their possible connection.
Rumors start to spread around Rafi’s working-class neighborhood—filled, it would seem, with gossipy folks from his village—that his grandmother has stopped taking her medication. Determined to appease the old woman, he prints out another copy of the photograph he took of Miloni and sends it to grandma, passing off the girl as his new fiancée. But when Grandma Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar) insists on taking the train into Mumbai and meeting the girl, Rafi becomes desperate. Thanks to a bit of serendipity, he hunts down Miloni and asks her to pose as his girlfriend. While this sounds like the setup for any number of wacky romantic comedies, Batra (who gave us the lovely 2013 romantic drama The Lunchbox) steers clear of the usual clichés, building a slow romantic drama filled with sadness, long silences and kindred spirits.
The film is primarily about expectations (romantic and otherwise) and secondarily about class consciousness. (Though they suffer from the same emotional malady, the two main characters are clearly from different worlds.) Batra deftly dodges Hollywood expectations (not to mention Bollywood expectations, which require lavish dance sequences, chaste romance and colorful weddings in just about every film). Still, the filmmaker probably keeps things a bit too bottled up for some tastes. Throughout the film’s runtime, Rafi and Miloni keep their thoughts and feelings quiet. They spend time together in the company of Dadi (and later without her), but they rarely speak. To the credit of the filmmaker and his actors, however, it isn’t hard to figure out the unspoken longing hiding under their passive faces.
Visually, Batra keeps his cinematography gritty and realistic with a slight burnished, late-afternoon glow about it. This is no romantic, soft-focus portrait of modern-day Mumbai. Even the tourist spots look crowded and chaotic. It’s this honest, documentary-like atmosphere and those quiet, understated performances that allow Photograph to flirt with such a fairy tale setup and not spill over into syrupy storytelling.
“The stories are all the same in movies these days,” admits Rafi in the film’s ambiguous but somehow fitting coda. Those who require hearts and flowers (and maybe even elaborate musical numbers) in their romantic films probably won’t be satisfied by Photograph’s incremental and inconclusive courtship. But patient viewers sick of overly scripted rom-coms and the unrealistic expectations put upon the characters therein should be happy to drink in this film’s subtle moments of simple human interaction.