'Photograph': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A quiet charmer.

A photograph brings unlikely lovers together in Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set romance.

The plot of Ritesh Batra's Photograph makes the film sound like a wacky Hollywood rom-com. Rafi scrapes by taking photos of tourists in Mumbai, a job not many steps above costumed superheroes in Times Square. Miloni, a young middle-class woman studying to be an accountant, lets him photograph her on an unhappy, why-not whim. When Rafi's beloved grandmother comes to visit, Rafi convinces Miloni to pose as his fiancee to satisfy the old woman. You wouldn't be blamed for cueing Sandra Bullock. But Batra turns a story that sounds tired and goofy into a lovely film with a tone of tender sadness.

Photograph reflects the style evident in Batra's first film, The Lunchbox (2013), about a lonely older widower and an unhappily married woman who exchange written notes, and his most recent, Our Souls At Night (2017), with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda as late-blooming lovers. Like those earlier films, this is a nuanced, slow-burn, will-they-or-won't-they romance. In quietly eloquent scenes, it explores not just the emotions of the two apparently mismatched characters, but the personal histories that shape them and the social expectations they confront.

Humor certainly wafts through the film. Every seller in Rafi's local Mumbai street market seems to have heard the news from his village, which they cheerfully pass along: His grandmother has stopped taking her medicine because he has refused to choose a bride. Guilting your children apparently transcends cultural boundaries.

Rafi, intrigued by Miloni and what he sees in the photograph, writes to his grandmother that she is his fiancee, calling her Noori because he doesn't know her real name. As Rafi tracks her down to ask if she'll act the part for his grandmother, Batra delicately explores the idea of falling in love with images. Rafi is entranced by the woman in the picture, but maybe his photograph also reveals something true about her. Or maybe he's just infatuated with her mystery and distance.

Batra fills in background gradually, avoiding blunt exposition. In time we learn the many reasons why Rafi is devoted to his grandmother. Once, when he and his siblings were sent from school for not paying the fees, she stood outside the school for three days until the children were let back in.

Miloni's motivations and unhappiness are less clearly defined. Her parents are nudging her toward marriage, arranging meetings with eligible men. But they aren't forcing her. She is a complacent personality, going along with the meetings her parents arrange and with Rafi's scheme. At first they meet with his grandmother. Then it's just the two of them, barely acknowledging their mutual attraction.

Eventually Miloni tells Rafi what she has glimpsed in the photograph he took. "I didn't see myself," she says. "I saw someone happier and prettier." That kind of flat-out explanation is rare in Batra's films, but Miloni is at times so obscure a character that the statement is welcome when it lands. Sanya Malhotra successfully captures Miloni's drifting sense of herself and her future, even if Batra's screenplay doesn't shape that ambivalence sharply enough.

Nawazuddin Siddiqi is subtle yet dynamic as Rafi. Throughout, his eyes reveal the intense feelings he's sorting through: the longing for Miloni, the love for his grandmother and his sense of how limited his own future might be. Siddiqi, who played the trainee who ingratiates himself with Irrfan Khan's character in The Lunchbox, is a major screen presence.

As the grandmother, Farrukh Jaffar is a delight who doesn't overplay the character's wiliness.

Batra deftly sets up the push and pull between tradition and modern views of marriage, and of the class differences separating the would-be couple. When they go on a movie date, Miloni jumps a bit in her seat. Rafi says it's nothing, just a rat scampering across her feet. Production designer Shruti Gupte and cinematographer Ben Kutchins create a vivid look that silently highlights those distinctions, from the busy touristy streets of Mumbai to Miloni's comfortable but nondescript family home and the dark hovel Rafi shares with several other men, sleeping on mats on the floor.

No one should head into a Batra film expecting fireworks, but for anyone who appreciates his understated style, Photograph is a satisfying, unswoony romance.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Poetic License, Film Science, Pola Pandora/KNM 
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqi, Sanya Malhotra, Vijay Raaz, Virendra Saxena, Farrukh Jaffar
Director-screenwriter: Ritesh Batra
Producers: Ritesh Batra, Viola Fugen, Neil Kopp, Michael Merkt, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani, Michael Weber
Director of photography: Ben Kutchins
Production designer: Shruti Gupte
Costume designer: Niharika Khan
Editor: John F. Lyons
Music: Peter Raeburn

110 minutes