Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Jim Sarbh, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Sachin Khedekar
Director: Ritesh Batra
One instant photograph – it’s what brings two strangers together in Ritesh Batra’s new film, that’s titled, simply, Photograph. The photograph in question may be instant, but this is a film that takes its time, leisurely setting up its story, taking us into the worlds and the lives of both its protagonists. There are captivating moments, winning dialogues, and little touches that bring a smile, but sadly the film never comes together to offer a fully satisfying experience.
Six years after his terrific debut The Lunchbox, Batra tells another Mumbai story about two unlikely strangers who are linked by a strange quirk of fate. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a photographer at the Gateway of India; a migrant from a small village in Uttar Pradesh, who sleeps in a cramped room with four other men. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a brilliant student preparing for her CA finals. She belongs to an upper middle class Gujarati family in Mumbai. Both are what you might describe as ‘lonely souls’; they’re surrounded by people, yet lost in a crowd. Their backgrounds couldn’t be more dissimilar, yet their orbits intersect when Rafi convinces her to let him take her picture. Miloni, who is introverted to a fault, disappears without paying him.
But serendipity, that beautiful thing, links the two together. Rafi uses Miloni’s photo to concoct a story for his grandmother, who is emotionally blackmailing him to get married. The girl in the picture is his fiancee, he lies. Her name? The strains of an old Lata Mangeshkar song float into Rafi’s room. “Her name is Noorie,” he writes.
Batra leans on nostalgia to draw us into the story. Old Hindi film songs waft in and out of the narrative, Miloni hankers for a soft drink from her childhood, there’s a scene set in a post office, single-screen cinemas are mined for romanticism, and we see Rafi shopping at a ‘kirana’ – the kind of small local establishment that’s hard to spot in big cities these days now dominated by supermarkets. Plot wise, Rafi’s feisty grandmother (a terrific Farrukh Jaffar) is delighted that he’s settling down and arrives in Mumbai to suss out the girl. Rafi, in turn, seeks out Miloni and persuades her to go along with his lie until Dadi is in town.
This could be the plot of a Bollywood potboiler, but Batra’s treatment, and his two central players, are different. Miloni is stifled by her family who have picked out her life path. Going along with Rafi’s charade – as improbable as it sounds – is an act of rebellion on her part.
As it turns out a chunk of the problem with Photograph is Miloni’s character. She is charmless, in a sweet sort of way. There’s a melancholic streak to her, but her impassive personality is hard to wrap one’s head around despite Sanya Malhotra’s earnest effort to mould herself into the role. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is more convincing, but the part barely stretches his acting muscles. The dynamic between Rafi and his cantankerous grandmother is more charming than the film’s ‘love story’, which makes it hard to stay invested in the journey as it unfolds slowly... very slowly.
That’s a shame because the film is shot lovingly and Batra traverses the city to distill its uniqueness: from its tiny hovels to its tea shops, the chatty cab-drivers and the rodent-infested cinemas. Trouble is, it’s all in service of a screenplay that feels too slight. The writing doesn’t pack the emotional urgency of The Lunchbox, and the characters aren’t as compelling. There is a delicate quality to the central relationship but it never takes flight. Batra keeps the story on slow-burn; how you wish he’d stirred things up from time to time.
In the end Photograph feels oddly out of focus. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.