Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a struggling street photographer working the crowd gathered at the Gateway of India, a tourist hotspot in Mumbai, has a sales pitch he repeats to prospective customers:
“Years from now, when you look back at this photograph, you will feel this sun on your face, this breeze in your hair and thousands of voices in your ears. It will be all gone.”
By the time we see him repeating the same lines to Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a young woman studying to become an accountant while her family looks for prospective matches, Rafi seems to barely believe his own sales pitch. But Miloni, a shy and obedient girl who barely believes in herself, takes a hesitant leap of faith, and poses for a photo. (It helps that Rafi drops his initial ask of Rs. 50—roughly $1—for a photo to Rs. 30.) “Just give me a paisa of a smile,” Rafi urges Miloni, forgoing the custom of saying cheese.
That moment changes the course of Rafi and Miloni’s lives, and forms the premise of Photograph, the latest film by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox, Our Souls at Night, The Sense of an Ending) and his second set in Mumbai. This opening montage, barely six minutes long, sets the tone: gentle, meditative, charming. When the camera moves from lingering, long shots of Miloni studying late into the night or aerial shots of the room that Rafi shares with his friends in a Mumbai slum to unflinching close-ups of the characters it’s considering, Photograph goes beyond the usual snapshots of the city that’s home to Bollywood. It’s a love letter to Mumbai, an ode to its simple pleasures.
The chance encounter between Rafi and Miloni extends when Rafi, in a bid to get his meddlesome grandmother (Farrukh Jaffer) off his back about his marriage, sends her a photo of Miloni. “I’ve met someone,” he writes in a letter he mails back to the village he left, hoping for some breathing space in a city that’s known to crush dreams. It doesn’t help that he’s carrying the burden of a family debt on his shoulders, along with his camera-kit backpack, but his grandmother decides to come to the city to meet the girl. Miloni, also desperate to escape her own constraints—late nights filled with accountancy books and a plate of cookies—agrees to help. As the unlikely couple tries to convince Rafi’s grandmother of their romance, their deception leads both Rafi and Miloni to understand each other, and themselves. As Rafi tells Miloni as they are figuring out the backstory of how they met to tell Rafi’s grandmother: The lie should be built on an element of truth.
Like in his debut feature The Lunchbox, which starred Irrfan Khan (Jurassic World, The Amazing Spider-Man, Life of Pi), Siddiqui and Nimrat Kaur, Photograph is about lonely individuals adrift in a city bustling with people. Rafi and Miloni don’t talk much—to each other, or to their family and friends. They listen, observe and occasionally smile. The city equally plays a character; its balmy days give way to monsoon nights, filled with cups of tea and freshly fried bhajiyas (savory vegetable fritters). Underneath this ostensibly simple story, there are layers of other issues such as class, gender, physical appearances, but Photograph never hits us on the head with any of them. These are incidental ideas you may find yourself thinking about long after the scene has moved on. Batra’s choice to show us Rafi, Miloni and Mumbai through doorways, windows and mirrors adds to the central theme of Photograph: When you really look into the frame, how much does it show, and how much does it hide?
It helps that this quiet film is stocked with actors who can carry the weight of their long silences, as well as a stellar supporting cast. Siddiqui’s craggy smile and Malhotra’s furrowed brow speak volumes. Their interactions—Rafi’s friends gently ribbing him, Miloni’s attempt to connect with the housemaid—are a joy to watch. In The Lunchbox, there were several scenes between Irrfan Khan’s taciturn character Saajan and Siddiqui’s turn as the chatterbox Shaikh that were a delight in technique. Photograph similarly has a scene between Siddiqui and Vijay Raaz (Monsoon Wedding), a veteran Indian actor whose deadpan delivery always hits the mark. To witness Raaz and Siddiqui riff off of each other’s lines while sharing a cigarette feels just perfect.
Though not a traditional romance, Photograph is certainly about gestures of love. Whether Rafi and Miloni stay together in the end is irrelevant. What matters is that they helped each other appreciate themselves.
Director: Ritesh Batra
Writers: Ritesh Batra, Emeara Kamble
Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffer, Ramesh Deo, Deepak Chauhan, Jim Sarbh
Release Date: May 17, 2019