Director: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra
Watch Photograph online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
“I know the rest,” says Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), as he sits in a cinema foyer with Miloni (Sanya Malhotra). “The stories are all the same in movies these days.” It’s a sentiment that Photograph embraces on several levels, telling a story that’s refreshingly different yet quaintly familiar.
Rafi is a bachelor, now entering middle age, and with that comes expectations on the part of his family – specifically, his grandma, Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar). She wants him to be a man of repute, stability and, most of all, a family of his own. In reality, he’s a photographer taking pictures of tourists at the Gateway of India, living holed up with other photographers and workers and hoping to one day pay off a large debt from his relatives. So when she writes to him to demand he get married, he replies with a white lie: that he’s already found a woman he loves. To prove it, he sends her a picture of a tourist – but when she comes to visit, he has to convince her to play along with his ruse.
The woman in question is Miloni, a shy student readying to be a chartered accountant. With expectations also placed upon her by her family, the fake relationship between them may well provide her with a more appealing way out of obligations. At least, that’s why we presume she agrees to join in the pretence. That’s the sole shortfall of Photograph: we never really get much of an insight into Miloni’s motivations, with Malhotra given the shallower, more passive character of the lead couple, despite her seemingly modern outlook and ambitions.
Together, though, they certainly find a low-key chemistry that easily charms: Siddiqui is endearingly naive and jaded at the same time, the kind of person who knows what Bollywood cinema has told him to expect from romance but finds life far from that ideal; Malhotra, meanwhile, is polite and kind to a fault, while remaining focused on her career goals; together, they find the caution, hope and uncertainty of two strangers getting to know each other.
Ritesh Batra has repeatedly cemented his reputation for low-key romantic comedy since his daintily brilliant debut, The Lunchbox, and it’s backed up here by his couple’s typically cute, understated bond. It’s matched by an equally astute observation of day-to-day Mumbai life, from the rats scurrying through cinema rows to the colourful street markets where ice candy promises both a cheerful extravagance and possible stomach bug. He also has a careful understanding of the gap between his odd couple’s respective social classes, a gulf that he captures poignantly but quietly with gorgeous framing and colourful compositions.
That gentle approach to storytelling doesn’t pay off as well as in The Lunchbox, though, with sometimes things played a little too delicately. It’s telling that Photograph really sparks to life when the laugh-out-loud Farrukh Jaffar turns up to forcibly matchmake Rafi and the woman she thinks is called “Noori”. Nonetheless, the film avoids any political or cultural debate, refusing to lean into its potentially progressive or subversive subject matter. Rather, this is a light tale of first impressions versus long-term commitment, of patience versus passion, of expectation versus reality. The result stands out from the blockbuster multiplex crowd, even if it never quite frees from its own genre trappings. Still, there’s something to be said for the same old story being told well and with heart, and Ritesh’s work is as charmingly nice as ever.
Photograph is available now in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.