Photograph: A Mumbai made-up romance that aims higher than a rom-com

By Karen Gordon

Rating: B

Writer/Director Ritesh Batra loves the ambiguity of longing. It framed the emotional story in his wonderful 2013 feature film debut The Lunchbox and it’s at the core of his latest movie Photograph.

Like The LunchboxPhotograph is set in Batri’s home town Mumbai, a city on the move, caught between centuries of tradition, and a push towards modernity. 

Nawazuddin Siddiqui stars as Rafi, a struggling street photographer who lives with four or five other men in a single room flat.  Rafi sends almost all his money to support his grandmother and family, and is determined not to move forward with his life until he’s paid off his late father’s debts, so as to reclaim the family’s ancestral home.

Sparks don’t exactly fly between Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and his pretend fiancé Miloni (Sanya Malhotra)

Sparks don’t exactly fly between Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and his pretend fiancé Miloni (Sanya Malhotra)

Rafi’s Dadi, or grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar), is constantly on his back about getting married, so much so that she appears to have recruited his friends to pressure him. One tells him that she’s now refusing to take her medicine until he finds a bride. 

To placate her, Rafi sends her a photo of a lovely young woman he’s recently shot, using a made-up name, and saying she’s the one.  If he thought that would get the pressure to stop, he was mistaken.

Grandma announces she’s coming to Mumbai to meet her soon-to-be grand-daughter-in-law. 

And now Rafi’s only plan is to track the young woman down and ask her to help him with the fiction he’s created for his dadi.

The woman in question is Miloni, played by Sanya Malhotra. She’s a lovely, but incredibly quiet and shy young woman, studying to be an accountant, while her parents try to arrange a suitable husband for her.  She’s either so obedient, or so shy that she barely says a word, not even, it seems, to express a preference for the basics.  She seems most comfortable talking to the family’s maid, but even their conversations are limited by Miloni’s reluctance, or inability to have a conversation. 

Miloni encounters Rafi one day and lets him take her picture, more out of politeness than out of a desire for a photograph. But she buys it, and on reflection, likes the picture, feeling that he’s captured something in the image of her that intrigues her.  

She even goes back to find him again, not realizing he’s away from his usual location, looking for her.  

Rafi does manage to track her down, and although we don’t see the exchange on camera, Miloni agrees to pretend to play his girlfriend for a day. 

Of course, the one meeting with Dadi inevitably leads to more, as Dadi wants to get to know her beloved grandson’s fiancé. And, Miloni who could bow out, keeps saying yes and goes along.  

All of this: the resourceful street photographer, the beautiful young student, the pushy grandmother and the mistaken identities would be perfect for a flat-out comedy. But Batra doesn’t play it that way.

Photograph is often about awkward silences while the two main characters contemplate their thoughts.   We don’t see much of an attraction, either. Either their reserve is too great for that kind of expression, or it isn’t at play here.

Are Rafi and Miloni attracted to each other? Does either see each other as a potential mate? On the surface, it’s highly improbable. In a culture where deep traditions matter, they have a lot going against them. 

The two are from different ends of the cultural spectrum, from different social castes, and different religions. Their age is never mentioned, but he appears to be quite a bit older than her as well.  But there are commonalities: They’re both quiet people who are polite and reserved to a fault, who seem unsure of themselves, and willing to sacrifice their own wants and needs, and whatever desires might lurk deep beneath the surface, for their families. 

The film is set in modern Mumbai, a city changing around these two honour-bound people. 

Are they feeling the pull of the cultural shifts in their city? Are they open to throwing off the shackles of the strict rules around social engagements, or committed to staying in their lane and pleasing their families?

This isn’t clear, which is a missing piece in the movie.  There are other missing pieces: how Rafi was able to track down Miloni so quickly, and the conversation where he asks her to pose as his fiancé are both question marks. 

But that appears to be part of Batra’s plan here.  Not everything we need or want to know is explained. The characters spend time together, but there are no heaving bosoms or furtive glances, little to tell us what’s going on for each of them.   It’s a risky way of telling a story, and yet, if you’re prepared to go with it, a rewarding one. 

What’s most entrancing about Photograph is that Batra weaves us into the reflective mood defined by Rafi and Miloni. We’re left with a captivating mystery.  Watching these quiet, hesitant people who don’t reveal much to us, has, if you’re willing to go with it, a kind of poetry to it. 

Photograph. Written and directed by Ritesh Batra. Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra and Farrukh Jaffar. Opens Friday, May 31 in Toronto and Vancouver.