Photograph movie review: Ritesh Batra’s dramedy fails to replicate The Lunchbox’s magic
Photograph is a slow-paced dramedy that can't quite transcend its clever setup. So, Batra ends up with a bland and meandering tale that is all foreplay and no climax.
By taking a crowd-pleasing You've Got Mail-like setup and giving it a heartwarming Indian twist, Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox took the international film festival circuit by storm in 2013. It struck a chord with audiences around the world, surprising everyone with its simplicity and bowling them over with its charm.
However, Batra's latest film, Photograph, fails to replicate The Lunchbox's magic and lacks the virtues that made the Irrfan Khan-Nimrat Kaur's epistolary romance palatable to a global audience.
Photograph is a slow-paced dramedy that can't quite transcend its setup. So, Batra ends up with a bland and meandering tale that is all foreplay and no climax.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Rafi, a struggling street photographer who takes snapshots of tourists and locals at Mumbai's Gateway of India for a small fee. He lives an austere lifestyle with the only luxury he indulges in is a kulfi at the end of the month. Sanya Malhotra is Miloni, a demure young woman who comes from an archetypal Indian middle-class family. She loved to act in dramas during her school days but is now studying to be a Chartered Accountant — because of, you know, Indian parents and their obsession with financial stability and a secure future.
Miloni meets Rafi one day as she is trying to catch a moment of peace and quiet from her overbearing mother. He urges her to take a photo, marketing it with an aphorism about preserving a moment in time that will never happen again — and will forever serve as a reminder of the emotions she felt in that fleeting moment. She agrees and takes a picture but as her mother starts calling out her name, she takes off without paying him.
Rafi's ailing grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) is a persistent woman, who wants to see her grandson married post-haste. When she comes to visit him in the city, he shows her a photo of Miloni, whom he claims to be his fiancee in order to get her off his back. After she insists on meeting the bride, Rafi tracks Miloni down and convinces her to pose as his fiancee. Miloni gladly agrees, as it provides her an escape from her unhappy domestic life — and perhaps offers an opportunity to test out her acting chops again.
Despite their differences in religion, class and economic background, their relationship deepens as they drop their defenses and share their hopes, sorrows and insecurities. Just like in the photograph snapped by Rafi, she seems "happier and prettier" in his presence. With time, the line between the ruse and the real gets murkier as the narrative is driven to its conclusion with the classic will-they-or-won’t-they.
The "pretend relationship for mutual benefit" is an overused trope in romantic comedies that rarely reaps rewards. Batra, however, excecutes the trope with a distinctive flavour of his own — and with a further examination of the economic, social and cultural dimensions of a relationship. And it works for the most part as there's an authenticity to the film's two lead characters and their personal histories. Even their conversations have an understated intimacy that most romcom pairings lack. With actors like Siddiqui and Malhotra, all Batra needs to do is train his cameras on them, and let them bring the story to life. In fact, while they both deliver nuanced performances, it is Jaffar's grandmother who makes the story more engaging than it really is.
Photograph is a fairly standard Mumbai-set slice of life drama. While there's humour and pathos, Batra lacks a firm grip on the story and it starts to get away from him midway through the film, making it hard for anyone to really get lost in it. In the end, you can't help but feel shortchanged.
It is still a sincere enough, easily digestible, curl-up-on-the couch film you wouldn't mind watching, come the relentless Mumbai monsoon.
This review was written after Photograph's world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival 2019.
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