Photograph finds joy in the spaces between its story mechanics, which makes it easier to appreciate the film’s occasionally patience-trying methods.
The fourth feature by acclaimed Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra, Photograph made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and was generally praised for being a quietly moving tale of love blossoming from an unexpected place. It’s familiar territory for Batra, who initially made a name for himself with his efforts on 2013’s similarly delicate rom-dram, The Lunchbox, and has since tried his hand at the December-December romance Our Souls at Night. And while his latest offering isn’t necessarily a mold-breaker, it’s a charming work that’s as tender and sensitive as its reticent leads. Photograph finds joy in the spaces between its story mechanics, which makes it easier to appreciate the film’s occasionally patience-trying methods.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui stars in Photograph as Rafiullah/Rafi, a lower-class Mumbai photographer who convinces a stranger, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), to pretend to be his fiancée for his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar), who’s gone so far as to stop taking her medication unless he finally gets married. It’s a setup right out of a Hollywood rom-com, complete with major coincidences and plot contrivances that allow Rafi and Miloni to carry out this scheme to begin with. However, much like an actual photograph (a good one, that is), the film uses its artificial framework to uncover deeper truths about the people and places it portrays in an authentic fashion. In this case, that not only includes Rafi and Miloni’s feelings for one another, but their respective dreams and what they’re even searching for in life.
Both written and directed by Batra, Photograph uses its core love story to explore themes about cultural tradition versus progress, in ways that bring his efforts on The Lunchbox to mind in particular. It’s fitting too, seeing as both films take place in Mumbai, which is where the storyteller was born. Batra’s affection for his home is apparent in the ways he and his DPs (Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins) lovingly capture and photograph every nook and cranny of the city, from its street shops to the interiors of Rafi’s apartment (which he shares with several other people), and the bustling streets where a taxi seems to fly by every other minute. Mumbai itself further encompasses the economic and social differences in Rafi and Miloni’s upbringings (with the latter being a high-achieving student from a middle-class family), making it more than just a nice backdrop to the plot here.
As busy and lively as Mumbai is, Photograph’s protagonists (as mentioned) are both equally introverted and soft-spoken in their nature. The film only emphasizes this with its use of long takes that call attention to what Rafi and Miloni aren’t saying (either to one another or those around them) as much as their scripted dialogue. Fortunately, Siddiqui and Malhotra are understated in their performances here and do a fine job of expressing their character’s inner thoughts and emotions, but without coming off as blank slates in the process. The pair are nicely juxtaposed by the more expressive characters surrounding them, especially Rafi’s dadi – who’s a typical, but nevertheless likable variation on the grandmother that always speaks her mind – and his far more rowdy and boisterous mates. All in all, it’s easy to believe these two people would form a bond with one another, their differences aside (age included).
If there’s a downside to Batra’s approach, though, it’s that Photograph can be excessively slow-moving and subtle to a fault. The film is also guilty of taking one too many minor detours that either aren’t as interesting as they’re meant to be (see the subplot involving a “ghost” that haunts Rafi’s place) or wind up feeling calculated in a way the movie otherwise aspires not to be (like a pair of scenes about Miloni and her teacher). This calls attention to the overarching issue with Photograph: it tries so hard to present itself as being unconventional – to the degree that, at one point, a character even talks about films being too formulaic these days – that it does more harm than good, especially since its narrative ultimately follows a clear trajectory. In the end, this is what prevents the film from being a great coming of age love story, as opposed to one which you admire intellectually more than engage with emotionally.
Thankfully, Photograph doesn’t come off feeling pretentious either, and makes for an enjoyable romantic drama on the whole. Its less-is-more storytelling might be far less groundbreaking than that of similar arthouse classics that’ve come before it (or even Batra’s own original films), but the movie’s otherwise kindhearted nature makes it all the more worthy of respect. And while it’s not, per se, something that has to be seen in theaters, it’s certainly a good option for those trying to find a suitable alternative to this month’s tentpole releases. Fortunately, Photograph’s been picked up by Amazon Studios, so that should make it easier for cinephiles to track this one down than other, less publicized non-english language features this year.
Photograph begins playing in select U.S. theaters on Friday, May 17. It is 108 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some thematic material.
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