Sundance 2019: Photograph, by David Bax
Director Ritesh Batra made his name with his lovely feature directorial debut, The Lunchbox, back in 2013, an understated story of a man and woman who become accidental pen pals via mixed up lunch deliveries. Now, with Photograph, he’s returned with another high-concept film, executed with an organic touch, that’s nearly as beautiful as its predecessor.
Sanya Malhotra stars as Miloni, a quiet young woman from a modestly prosperous family in Mumbai studying to become a chartered accountant. On a stroll past the Gateway of India monument one day, she agrees to have her picture taken by Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who does the same all day, every day for tourists at 50 rupees a piece. What Miloni doesn’t know is that Rafi’s grandmother is pressuring him to marry and he later uses the photo to prove to her that he is dating someone. Now, the grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) is coming to town and Rafi must track down Miloni and ask her to pose as his girlfriend.
While no major discussion on the subject takes place, Miloni and Rafi’s differing economic classes run as an undercurrent throughout Photograph. For instance, in the presence of Dadi (the Hindi word for grandmother), Miloni decides that she must pretend to be a poor orphan. And later, when Rafi sees Miloni’s accounting instructor treating her inappropriately on the street, he hesitates to intervene, knowing that his lower social standing gives him little clout.
Photograph sidesteps condescension, though, in depicting Mumbai’s poor, even as it highlights what could be seen as their folksy wisdom. Rafi and his pals (who share a one-room flat and trade off nights sleeping on the bed or the floor) may tend to speak in metaphors, comparing themselves to birds and the like, but Batra undercuts every such instance with the running gag of them complimenting each flight of fancy by exclaiming, “Well said!”
So there are abundant laughs to be found in Photograph (Jaffar in particular is hilarious) but this is no romantic comedy. Even so, it does partake in some of the genre’s tropes. But it does so knowingly. Rafi’s hunt for Miloni could easily fall into the unfortunately common “cutesy stalker” prototype but his respectful caution belies Batra’s self-awareness. Like The Lunchbox, Photograph strips away all that could have been false about its premise and replaces the clichés with patient scenes that allow the diegetic atmosphere of Mumbai to flood into the film, making everything as real and tactile as Miloni and Rafi’s burgeoning attraction.