Writer-director Ritesh Batra’s 2013 debut, The Lunchbox, ended up being a much bigger hit than he or anyone else involved could’ve imagined. It saw him move into English language territory with his adaptation of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending, and work with two screen legends in Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in Our Souls at Night. Batra’s sweet spot seems to be small, intimate romantic dramas that quietly bring his characters to life and his new film, Photograph, follows on in very much the same vein.
Photograph is also a return to Mumbai for Batra and to Hindi-languge filmmaking, also teaming up again with Nawazuddin Siddiqui who starred in his debut film. It's a fairy tale of sorts about a poor-boy-meets-rich-girl who must cross unlikely societal divides and almost impossible obstacles in order to be together. At the same time, Batra’s organic style is rooted in reality, despite how unlikely it is that this sort of relationship could ever happen in the real world.
Siddiqui stars as Rafi, a middle-aged street photographer who lives a threadbare life in Mumbai. Everyone nags him about settling down but instead he’s focussed on paying off his father’s debts to reclaim the family home. Rafi hears his grandmother (an excellent Farrukh Jaffar) has stopped taking her medicine because she is so distraught at his refusal to find a wife. When he takes a photograph of young student, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), she suddenly disappears before paying but her image will play a big role in both of their futures.
Rafi is trapped by a self-imposed duty to his past, while Miloni’s lack of autonomy is a result of middle-class expectations. She is pushed by her family to keep meeting prospective husbands while studying to become a chartered account, but is equally as unhappy as Rafi. In order to get his grandmother back on her medication he sends Miloni’s picture and asks her to pose as his prospective wife when she comes to visit. Miloni is happy to oblige and their developing relationship slowly gives her the strength of will to take more control of her own direction in life.
Photograph's considered pacing carefully ingratiates us into Rafi and Miloni’s individual and converging worlds. Both are facing pressure from their families which means their meetings offer a sense of escape for them both. Miloni dreams of living on a quiet village farm, away from the monotony of her routine at home and the pressures of studying and settling down. Rafi gets by but is drifting through life without direction and the scheme he's cooked up to trick his grandmother could inadvertently end up being the thing that turns things around for him.
While Batra’s story follows a well-trodden path it is the grounded performances from the three actors that make it feel less formulaic. Batra even makes reference to the arc the couple are following in a scene at the local cinema. Rafi comments that he’s seen the type of film they’re watching a thousand times before, although notably he doesn’t finish his thoughts about how the potboiler ends. Both Malhotra and Siddiqui’s characters are largely internalised but there is a sweet awkwardness between them that slowly blooms into something more meaningful. Jaffar is wonderful as Rafi’s outspoken grandmother, a woman who enjoys the freedom of speech her old age affords her.
The film has been crisply shot by Ben Kutchins and Tim Gillis, bringing alive various regions of Mumbai to distinguish the class divides being bridged. There is a danger Peter Raeburn’s perky score could become a little overbearing but it’s used well enough to complement, rather than smother the story. There’s a warm, romantic charm to Photograph that allows it to overcome its conventions and while it won’t rock your world, it has some nice poetical touches that make it a pleasure to spend 110 minutes with.
Photograph opens in select UK cinemas on August 2.