At the risk of sounding cold hearted, the delicate, quiet little film “Photograph” fails to pack enough emotional punch to work as a successful love story. The film, written and directed by Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox”), is comprised of his signature small, subtle moments that are woven together into a sweetly nostalgic romance.
Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) works as a street photographer on the busy streets of Mumbai, snapping instant portraits for tourists at the city’s most famous landmarks. One day he takes a photo for Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a shy woman who runs off without paying him the agreed upon 30 rupees.
In the meantime, everyone, from Rafi’s best friends to his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar), continue to put pressure on him to find a bride. Desperate to get granny off his back, Rafi sends a made up letter about his new girlfriend and encloses the photo of Miloni. This prompts grandma to announce that she’s coming to the city to meet the lucky lady. After a chance encounter brings Miloni and Rafi together again, he enlists her to pretend to be his future bride.
The premise sounds like a goofy, screwball romantic comedy, but the end result is something slightly sad. There are some funny moments, but the film is mostly a melancholy look at the class differences that stand in the way of real affection. She is well-to-do with a live-in housekeeper and he is poor, sharing a small loft with a half dozen other people. Rafi fears Miloni is too good for him, especially in a society that frowns upon the two different classes being together.
The idea of random connections and serendipity are heartwarming, and it’s enjoyable when the film flips the script on typical female marriage pressures. Here there’s a male perspective, and there’s even a scene of Rafi’s all male buddies pestering him with constant reminders that soon he will be “too old” to get married and have a family.
The story is predictable and so understated that it feels very slow. Batra relies too heavily on facial expressions and moments of suggestive silence to tell his story instead of compelling dialogue. The thin material makes everything too draggy. The charming actors keep things humming along, especially Jaffar’s sassy grandma with the huge personality. She steals the film out from under the other actors, who are all portraying characters I just couldn’t connect with.
Batra excels at telling universal love stories onscreen, and the closing shot of a movie theater as Rafi laments that “the stories are all the same in movies these days” is as poetic as it is profound. But a beautiful ending can’t erase the abundant dull moments beforehand.