“Years from now when you look at this photo, you’ll feel the sun on your face.” These are the opening words spoken in “Photograph” by Rafi (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) to tourists in Mumbai as they congregate around the Gateway of India monument. He makes his meager living snapping instant photos of them, and his hard-sell patter has a practiced ease.
One of the tourists is Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a shy young woman studying to be an accountant. Rafi takes her picture but she runs off before the transaction is completed. There is an overriding reason to track her down: Rafi’s grandmother (played with aplomb by Farrukh Jaffar in the film’s liveliest performance) has made it known that she will stop taking her medicine until her grandson finds a wife.
India is a country of strict class distinctions, and Rafi, who is poor and uneducated, has no illusions that the bourgeois Miloni will fall for him. But, for his grandmother’s sake, he devises a scheme that, surprisingly, once he finds her, she agrees to. She will pose as his fiancée, at least until he finds a real one, in order to allay his grandmother’s fears. Matters complicate when the grandmother arrives in Mumbai from her village for an up-close look-see.
Ritesh Batra, who gave us the mostly marvelous “The Lunchbox” in 2013, wrote and directed “Photograph,” and it represents a return to his roots after several excursions in Hollywood. It’s a movie that takes its own sweet time getting to a conclusion that will surprise no one, but it has a stillness, an evocativeness, that expresses far more than its rather paltry plot.
Batra is aware of the story’s inherent sentimentality, even to the point of drawing implicit parallels between Rafi and Miloni’s predicament and the standard tropes in Bollywood movies, with their spangly love stories and family intrigues. At one point, after Rafi takes her to a Bollywood film that they exit before it ends, he deduces the rest of the plot for her on the grounds that, in Bollywood movies, “the stories are all the same.” What Batra is reaching for here is the fairy tale beguilements of Bollywood romance but without all the hoopla. He wants to tenderize the Bollywood clichés and bring the essence of their ardor into the real, teeming world of Mumbai.
To a fairly large degree, he succeeds, even though the movie is tender to a fault. Perhaps Batra was wary of too spirited an approach lest he highlight the story’s clichés. He needn’t have worried. He’s a rarity in the movie business: a romantic without a trace of schlock.
Batra’s handling of the class distinctions is the surest sign of his principled tact. He intercuts, without editorializing, the home lives of Rafi and Miloni, and we can see how far apart they are. Rafi lives in a packed room with several other scroungers; he wants to make enough money to buy back the family home in his village but that goal is likely out of reach. Miloni, served by a chambermaid, eats with her middle-class family and seemingly accepts the benefits of a comfortable life. (We delightedly learn later that she would like to live in a village and sleep under a tree.)
When Rafi is with Miloni, whom he calls “madam,” he is intensely respectful, even after it is clear she is warming to him. But we know his true feelings.
In one of the film’s sharpest scenes, Rafi approaches Miloni while she is talking to her accountancy instructor, who is also sweet on her, and when the instructor sizes him up and says to him “off you go,” Rafi uncharacteristically bristles. He had crossed the class divide.
Why does Miloni go along with the ruse about being Rafi’s fiancée? We are told that she had been a trophy-winning actress in high school and although she seems too recessive for that, she does open up a bit when she’s around the grandmother. She enjoys the role-playing, and she also enjoys the company of the wily old crone, who affectionately berates her grandson and points out more than once that he has his grandfather’s “crooked smile.”
It could also be that Miloni is responding to the person she sees in Rafi’s photograph of her. “I saw someone who looked happier than me,” she tells him. In her own soft way she is reaching for enchantment. She wants to be the woman in that photograph. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for some thematic material. In Hindi and English with English subtitles.)