By Samir Shukla
Sanya Malhotra and Nawazuddin Siddiqui appear in Photograph by Ritesh Batra
-- Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios
Directed by Ritesh Batra
Cast: Nawazzudin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar
In our video-driven world, a still photograph can still impact lives. The film Photograph is a quiet tale of friendship and romance opened by a single photograph. A very subtle entanglement of the characters guides the film, written and directed by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox). He takes time unfolding the story. Rafi (Nawazzudin Siddiqui), a struggling photographer, and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a shy middle-class student, cross paths at the Gateway of India in Mumbai. Rafi convinces a hesitant Miloni to take her photo and prints it out on a portable printer in his backpack while she waits. He loses track of her when she is called away by a family member, taking the photo without getting a chance to pay Rafi.
Rafi is working in Mumbai to help pay off family debt back in his native village. He lives in a dark, grungy room with several male roommates while saving money to send back home. His grandmother, dadi (Farrukh Jaffar), meanwhile writes to him that she refuses to take her medicine unless he finally finds a wife. Rafi decides to track Miloni down and asks her to play along and pretend she is his fiancée, so dadi will resume her meds. Miloni goes along with Rafi's scheme while living out her life, even meeting potential suitors her parents arrange for her, in her comfortable middle class home.
In the meantime, feisty dadi decides to visit her grandson and meet his future bride. No, the film doesn't turn into a comedic farce at that point. Batra deftly guides the story and characters further into a study of friendship, longing, class and caste differences that inform people's lives. Both Rafi and Miloni keep up the charade to please dadi, who of course in no amateur in such matters.
Rafi and Miloni begin to develop a friendship that slowly suggests a budding romance. Photograph is a nuanced, slow strolling film. It's the space between the silence and subdued conversations that make it tender without being coy or corny. Interspersed with Hindi and Gujarati dialogue, the film unfolds ever so gently, while navigating cultural differences, societal expectations and the invisible forces that attract two people.
The film gives nods to classic Bollywood while Batra and the cinematographers capture the daily lives of street denizens of Mumbai - the taxi drivers, chai sellers, vendors, small shopkeepers. The densely packed lives of Mumbai streets come alive where the different inhabitants in Rafi's local street market all have heard that his grandmother wants him to find a wife or she will not take her medicine.
Somewhere along the way I was expecting tense moments, conflict between the two protagonists, maybe harsh words being exchanged, some physical action even, but Batra sticks with a serene mood. Both Siddiqui and Malhotra, respectively playing middle aged man and young student, work their parts with subtle warmth. Jaffar steals more than one scene as the world weary grandmother.