'Photograph': Watching Love Develop

(India/Germany/USA, 110 min.)
Written and directed by Ritesh Batra
Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra
man and woman with polaroids
Amazon Pictures / Mongrel Media

Ritesh Batra is quietly becoming a master of the understated love story. After the crowd-pleasingly brilliant The Lunchbox and the poignantly stirring Our Souls at Night, Batra delivers another bittersweet two-hander with Photograph. The film brings Batra back to Mumbai after a few western indies—besides Our Souls at Night, Batra directed the forgettable adaptation of Julian Barnes’ regrettable Booker Prize winner The Sense of an Ending—and one might call it a return to his roots. Photograph is another romantic two-hander and Batra reclaims the magic of The Lunchbox as the love story draws upon the divides of class, religion, and gender that give the love story a deeper sting.

It’s slower and more delicately played than The Lunchbox is—or Our Souls at Night, for that matter—but Photograph finds winning performances from The Lunchbox’s Nawazuddin Siddiqui (who also appeared in last TIFF’s Manto) as Rafi and newcomer Sanya Malhotra as Miloni, two lonely souls united by the click of a shutter. The pair meet when Miloni, a student studying to be a chartered accountant, receives a persistent request from Rafi, a village farmer working as a street photographer in the city to pay off his family debt, as he begs to take her photo by the postcard perfect Gateway of India. Miloni agrees, but flees shortly after Rafi hands her the first of several Polaroids.

The leftover pics come in handy, though, when Rafi’s nagging grandmother Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar) asks him when he’s going to settle down. Bound by his duty to clear his family name, as well as his altruistic sense that it’s unfair to ask a woman to take on his burden, Rafi fibs and gives Dadi one of Miloni’s photographs as proof that he has a girlfriend. Ever the doting aunty, Dadi asks to meet her.

An unlikely romance ensues as Rafi asks the girl from the well-to-do middle class family if she wouldn’t mind keeping up the ruse. For reasons that are at first utterly mystifying, Miloni agrees. They put up a convincing charade that utterly thrills Rafi’s grandmother. Their courtship, which one could call an arranged marriage of sorts, becomes more genuine with each phony date as one partner learns more about the other. They’re both shy and tender souls longing for connections.

Sparks don’t fly in Photograph as Batra delivers a slow burn of a love story, something that simmers up from within and warms the heart as the romance between Rafi and Miloni takes form like the pictures on one of Rafi's Polaroids. Siddiqui delivers a strong performance that brings to life Rafi’s dignity and pride, but his mannered approach to the character also creates a man who’s been wounded by the cruel twists in his life that make him feel unworthy of Miloni’s love. Malhotra, on the other hand, gives a delicately restrained turn as the cautious and bashful Miloni, who’s been rendered passive by an upbringing that prepares her to be a wife first and foremost. Her parents, like Dadi, are hell-bent on finding her a match.

Fans of The Lunchbox will inevitably enjoy the Photograph’s sweetly understated love story, although the film’s languid pace may prove trying for some audiences. Similarly, the film’s play with food, while rich, doesn’t have quite as deep a flavour as The Lunchbox does. Batra’s film finds its magic as the director weaves dynamics of India's deeply rooted class system into the relationship as the lovers grows increasingly aware of the improbability of their match as they realize their mutual affection. Miloni finds herself struck by Rafi’s stories of a slowly paced life back in his village, while Rafi’s love for Bollywood romance tells him that a girl two steps above his social standing won’t provide the happy ending he desires. Batra plays upon Bollywood convention, though, and offers an ending that surprises with an effective tonal and temporal shift in the story. It leaves one hanging, waiting anxiously for the full picture to develop.

Photograph opens Friday, May 31 at TIFF Lightbox.