Batra crafts a film that is both charming and bittersweet.
The Gateway of India, built for King George V, stands in Mumbai facing the Indian Ocean, framing both the water and city beyond. In even passable light, it feels like it would be impossible to take a bad photo near such a monument. In writer-director Ritesh Batra’s new film Photograph that notion is not so much put to the test as it is pushed to the limit. The Gateway recurs as a symbol of the city in the film, of something old and inevitable. A photograph, meanwhile, mirrors this concept, providing an image that works as both a time machine and capsule. It’s in this duality that Batra makes his mark, crafting a film that is both charming and bittersweet.
The film presents with two people in Mumbai who may as well be living on different planets. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a quiet student from a relatively well-off family who is working her way towards becoming a chartered accountant. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqi) is a street photographer who spends days taking pictures of tourists in front of the Gateway and nights hanging out with his four roommates. It’s obvious how and where the two will meet, but Photograph moves to an unpredictable rhythm, and while Rafi does indeed take Miloni’s picture, what the pair lose and gain over the course of the film is something of a surprise.
Even with all of its complicating factors, the setup is familiar. Feeling pressure from his grandmother (a delightful Farrukh Jaffar)—and everyone else he knows—Rafi decides to invent a fiancée using Miloni as inspiration, after she has run off in a fit of nervousness without paying for the photo he took of her. It would all be a simple white lie if only Rafi’s willful grandmother didn’t then decide to travel to the city to meet the girl; and if Miloni and Rafi didn’t drift back together, both directly or indirectly searching for each other. It’s perhaps a reach to assume the pair would just stumble upon each other in a city as big as Mumbai, but Batra’s presumption of destiny never quite feels as heavy as that. The light touch he brings to the material ignites the film’s romance, even as Rafi and Miloni spend most of their time on-screen apart.
To achieve this effect, Batra fills in the margins of Photograph with animated supporting characters, the tension of class conflict, and even a touch of magical realism. As a man from a village, Rafi labours to pay off debts and reclaim his family’s house; it’s his old life he wants back—even if there is no way forward to get it. Miloni, meanwhile, is being led along a career and life track that she doesn’t want, though she won’t speak up to change its trajectory. Despite her comforts, Miloni awakens to the possibility of existence outside her family home, her classroom, indeed outside of her entire city. Rafi’s presence helps to reframe her perspective, but we wonder how far she’ll go. Beyond its common “will-they-or-won’t-they” construction, the film’s exploration of the societal context around Rafi and Miloni makes for a far more involved narrative.
There are obvious call-backs here to Batra’s previous feature film set in India, The Lunchbox. As in that film, the setting is just as important, creating as it does the conditions in which its unlikely couple move against. Working again with editor John F. Lyons, Photograph moves with similar easy grace, whether it be capturing noisy street scenes or calm night passages. There are transitions by way of sound and perspective that helpfully guide us or land an effective punchline. Lead performances from Malhotra and Siddiqi (returning from The Lunchbox) dance around familiar elements while finding new territory to claim. Malhotra, in particular, imbues Miloni with a wondrous slow dawning discovery; her character remains relatively quiet throughout, but her eyes relay the change she’s undergoing, the understanding that is blooming inside her.
Photograph doesn’t end in front of the Gateway, which comes as another light surprise. There’s no grand romantic embrace here nor breakdown into some Bollywood musical number. Batra instead roots his characters in both India’s history and its future, taking steps to something unknown. It’s fitting then that we never see the photograph Rafi takes of Miloni. We can imagine it though, and we can understand what would stir both of these people to action. Is it love? Escape? Something else? Batra leaves that for us to answer, confident in the picture he’s created.