Film Review: 'Photograph' - The art of subtlety and nuance
Tourist attractions aren't necessarily places where one might find love - especially the hawks looking to profit off wide-eyed travelers by pawning off trinkets, tours or other forms of empty mementoes. Mumbai's Gate of India, India's second-most popular tourist destination behind the Taj Mahal, serves as the backdrop of Ritesh Batra's Photograph, which stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra. A chance encounter involving a street photographer trying to hustle tourists and an accounting student minding her own business while walking by the Gate of India results in two people going down the rabbit hole of a love interest that never materializes.
Siddiqui portrays Rafi, a 40-something year old who spends his days at the Gate of India, flagging down tourists and asking them to take their photo. Memories come and go but photographs permanently capture moments, Rafi promises. One can revisit the photo years later and recall the sights and sounds and smells of the day that once was, he'd continue.
This was the pitch Rafi gave Miloni (Malhotra) moments after she disembarked a boat and navigated through the tourist trap known as the Gate of India. Miloni, hesitant at first, agrees to be photographed, but leaves as soon as Rafi hands her the snap. What appears, at first, to be a brief, transactional meeting actually develops into a story of a subtle and nuanced relationship involving deceit and fondness.
Rafi, you see, is under pressure to find a bride. He is in his 40s, which means the time for him to find a suitable partner is all but running out. People around town whisper into Rafi's ear: your grandmother, the matriarch of your family, is falling ill due to you being the eternal bachelor. The grandmother, portrayed by Farrukh Jaffar, is a country bumpkin who's mission in life is to witness her grandson's marriage.
The chance encounter with Miloni gave Rafi an idea: track her down and ask her if she would go along with a farce. He specifically asks her to pose as his girlfriend in front of his grandmother, who is stereotypically intrusive.
Granny comes to Mumbai and meets Miloni. She is skeptical at first but soon bonds with who she thinks will be the bride of her pride. The rest of the film interweaves the lonely narratives of Rafi and Miloni with the rabbit-hole story they share. They get to know each other, one intricate detail at a time, but not to the point where Rafi and Miloni actually transition into an actual romance. There is awkwardness amongst the two, but through it all Rafi and Miloni also share a fondness - which is both innocent and endearing, considering the personalities and backgrounds of photographer and accounting student couldn't more different.
The dialog, interactions and pacing are all simple, allowing the awkwardness and innocence to permeate throughout the film. A few social constructs are also presented - Rafi hails from the sticks and hustles as a street vendor to find some sort of life in the big city, while Miloni is a submissive young woman who lives affluently and is expected to marry the proverbial fine, upstanding man.
Miloni would find a way to break through stereotypes and class levels to marry Rafi had Photograph been a fantastical Bollywood film. Photograph, then again, isn't a film with a Bollywood (or Hollywood) finish. Instead we meet two people who just are, in their nuanced and subtle glory. Batra's simplistic approach to storytelling might leave a few people wanting for more, but then again, perhaps the tale of Rafi and Miloni is a literal metaphor of the world we live in: aspects of our life are sometimes outlandish or stretched beyond the confines of societal normalcy but bounded by simplicity, curiosity and a lack of meaningful depth.
Siddiqui and Malhotra are solid in their respective performances of Rafi and Miloni. Both actors are so convincing in their narrative we, as the audience, constantly root for them actually pursue a romance. We constantly find Rafi to be empathetic, all while hoping Miloni discovers her independence. Through each character we see some of the prototypical narratives of our own lives: we can be scared, timid and shy, sometimes sacrificing personal development to avoid rocking the boat of our tiny and tunnel-visioned universe.
Photograph will be released by Amazon Studios on May 17; Batra won Best Director at the recently concluded New York Indian Film Festival (May 7-12) for his work behind the camera on Photograph.