Review: 'Photograph', Ritesh Batra's Subdued Romance Never Fully Develops

We've been taught by thousands of romance movies to believe in love at first sight. That fate and destiny will find a way to bring two people together. The truth is that love tends to take its time, moving at a gradual pace towards something unpredictable and unassured. Photograph is an apt title for Ritesh Batra's latest drama about an likely romance. A snapshot into the past, but set firmly in the present, it's a film that appreciates the deliberate rhythms that come with falling in love. However, this low-wattage drama struggles with the chemistry of its romantic couple, and with a story that keeps us at too far of an emotional distance.

Set in Mumbia, Photograph centers on two people being pulled in opposite directions by familial obligations and antiquated customs. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a poor street photograph, taking photographs of tourists with his Polaroid camera along the Gates of India. He's burdened by his family's overwhelming debt, which he has vowed to pay off before ever getting married. It's just a convenient excuse, however, to ward off his grandmother who is pressuring him to find a wife. Rafi's pitch to potential customers is simple but profound: the sun, the wind, and the people around you will be gone when you leave, but you can keep the feeling with a single photograph. Rafi is offering people a window into a world he is unable to enjoy himself.

One of those looking for an escape from reality is Miloni (a luminous Sanya Malhotra), a shy, chartered accountant student whose middle-class parents already have a future mapped out for her. Shocker, it includes marrying a man of their choosing and moving to the United States to be a wife. When she happens upon Rafi, she agrees to have her photo taken, capturing this brief moment of freedom in her life. Later, when Rafi asks her to masquerade as his girlfriend to placate his visiting grandmother, Miloni sees it as a rare chance for excitement and agrees.

Of course, what starts out as a lie grows into something more authentic, but the road to getting there is subtle...perhaps too subtle. Batra fills their encounters with mundane activities: cups of tea, dinner with Rafi's grandmother, and the occasional movie in a rat-infested theater. While Batra's attention to detail makes the most of Mumbai's vibrant, frenetic markets and lush architecture, Rafi and Meloni's connection could've used more coloring in. The affection they come to have for one another is rarely expressed through words, but through modest gesture. While Batra respects the viewer enough to not spell everything out, some scenes could've used more passion.

The film also could've done more to explore the class issues that weigh upon both Rafi and Miloni, but they rarely get around to discussing. Instead, they contend with these issues in separate storyarcs. Rafi must deal with the possibility of having a wife who earns more than him, a disgrace his grandmother is all too eager to remind him of. Miloni, whose life affords her a housemaid who waits on her every need, dreams of a simple life working in a village, but has little idea what a life without comfort is really like. Rafi is a glimpse into that life but Batra could have dug much deeper into Miloni's feelings on what hardship actually looks like.

Batra does get a glowing performance from Sanya Malhotra as the introverted Miloni, but Siddiqui never seems quite right beside her. Part of it is the nearly two-decade age different between them, another is a screenplay that only occasionally lets us into their hearts. Batra's prior films, The Lunchbox and Our Souls at Night, had such easy chemistry and charm it's disappointing Photograph couldn't develop on the same level.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5