Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui. In English, Hindi, and Gujarati, with English subtitles. Rated G
On the heels of the delightfully offbeat Sir comes another Indian-language indie about relationships across class and culture lines. The intriguing Photograph also works as a kind of love letter to Mumbai, seeking out the quietly redemptive spaces that are usually missing from tales of that overstuffed city.
Quiet reflection is the key in which writer-director Ritesh Batra works. He had an international hit with The Lunchbox, likewise exploring gentle, unexpected love. He probed tentatively connected English-speaking souls in The Sense of an Ending and Our Souls at Night (with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford), before returning to his hometown for this tale centred on a lonely street photographer called Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, also in Lunchbox).
Spending his days snapping tourists for small change, he has a chance encounter with Miloni (newcomer Sanya Malhotra), a middle-class accounting student with more sensitivity than ambition. Long bugged about his single status by family and noisy but genial flatmates, Rafi sends a copy of this unknown young woman’s snapshot to his faraway village, claiming he’s finally found a fiancée. Of course, his beloved Muslim matriarch takes that as an invitation to come meet the lucky Hindu girl.
Our guy, who’s already in his 40s, somehow manages to talk the 20-something Miloni into following through on the ruse. That’s just one of the many crucial transactions left out of the story, which relies more on mood and texture than on convincing narrative development. Rafi’s ancient grandmother (the wonderful Farrukh Jaffar) helps spark the proceedings. “I don’t want to be a bone in your kebab,” she says at one point, before pushing him to be more forward.
Full of exquisitely composed geometric patterns and soft, burnished colours, the movie itself remains rather sullen, and we never quite learn what these mismatched like-birds see in each other. Indeed, Miloni barely registers as a character. At one point, her mother, still hoping for an arranged marriage, brags that her eldest daughter “won trophy after trophy” in her high-school drama program. But we see no assertive shape-shifting in her romantic pantomime with Rafi. There’s a nice closing bit, with the characters riffing on the expectations of a Bollywood finish, but no real sense of an ending.