Ritesh Batra’s films might be considered romantic comedies, except they’re not quite romantic and they’re not quite comedies. With "The Lunchbox,” “Our Souls at Night” and now “Photograph,” Batra focuses on films about two strangers who meet in unlikely circumstances. The delicate relationship that develops between the two is something more than friendship, but whether it becomes love is unclear.
After several English-language films, “Photograph” brings Batra back to his native India for a humane tale that plays with the conventions of a Bollywood romance before digging beneath them. The setup is pure rom-com; a street photographer named Rafi (Nawazuddin Sidiqui) struggles to make ends meet by taking photos of tourists in Mumbai. One day, he takes a picture of a shy woman (Sanya Milhotra), but loses her in the crowd before he can give her the photo.
Back in Rafi’s home village, his strong-willed grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) is refusing to take her medicine until Rafi gets married. In a stroke of desperation, Rafi sends his grandmother the photo of the mysterious woman, claiming she’s his fiancée. His grandmother is thrilled — so thrilled that she decides to come to Mumbai to meet her.
The woman is Miloni, a shy and serious accounting student living with her parents. Rafi convinces her, somehow, to pretend to be his fiancée for his grandmother’s sake. The viewer would expect the usual plot twists and close shaves as Rafi and Miloni try to keep their deception intact, but “Photograph” doesn’t really go that way.
The fictional engagement seems for both of them a way to imagine another, more exciting life, one that resembles what they see in the movies. In real life, Rafi and Miloni are weighed down by the past and their families’ expectations. Rafi is working to pay off his late father’s debts so he can buy back the family home. Miloni’s parents are trying to arrange a marriage between her and a nice guy who is immigrating to the United States. She will probably go, just because she doesn’t know what she wants out of life or how to articulate it.
“Photograph” is also very tuned in to the class system in India and how it affects personal relationships. Rafi is poor, living in a tin-roof shack with several other men. Miloni is middle class, with servants in her home. It’s a cultural gulf that’s common in Bollywood movies, where the poor guy wins the heart of the rich girl. But in real life, it’s not so easy.
I really fell into the quiet rhythms of “Photograph,” of spending time with these two people as they live their lives, imperfectly but hopefully. The film captures the real Mumbai the tourists don’t see — rundown movie theaters, street markets, crowded streets — and makes it a luminous and romantic place.
In the end, the film conveys a subtle but eloquent message about not living in your dreams (even those dreams inspired by the movies), but to take chances in real life, even at risk of getting hurt. As an elderly doctor says at one point in the film, “The longer I live, the more pain I have. But the longer I live, the pain hurts less.”