Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a street photographer from a small village, laboring to pay off his family’s debts. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a dutiful daughter from a middle-class family, studying for her accountancy qualification and generally doing what she’s told, to the point of letting her mother choose her clothes for her. Their paths cross when Rafi takes a picture of Miloni as she’s visiting the Gateway of India, a colonial monument erected in Mumbai in 1911 to celebrate a visit by George V, King of England and Emperor of India. It’s a classic meet-cute moment that sets in motion one of the sweetest, gentlest rom-coms you will ever see.
Miloni forgets to take one copy of her photograph with her, which comes in handy when Rafi’s grandmother Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar) informs him it’s high time he got married. He claims Miloni is his bride-to-be, sending the photograph as proof, but Dadi calls his bluff by announcing that she’s coming to Mumbai to check things out in person (if you think that sounds like an episode of The Simpsons, you’re right). So Rafi has to convince Miloni to pose as his bride to be, while she (whose family is eager to marry her off to a younger and more prosperous man) has to play the role convincingly enough to pass scrutiny from Dadi.
Ritesh Batra also directed The Lunchbox, and Photograph maintains a similar tone to that film while delving more deeply into the sociology of contemporary India. Many barriers divide Rafi and Miloni: he’s poor, she’s upper class; he’s Muslim, she’s Hindu; he’s from the countryside, she’s from the city; he’s also substantially older than her, and he hasn’t exactly spent his time achieving a professional qualification. But in other ways they are similar—most importantly in their introspective natures and the fact that both want more out of life than they’ve been granted, or that they believe will come from following a conventional path.
Batra skillfully manipulates your emotions to ensure that you will be pulling for Rafi and Miloni to get together. Unfortunately, he doesn’t treat the two leads equally, and Rafi’s character is much better developed than Miloni’s—for an intelligent young women studying to enter a profession, she’s remarkably passive in her daily life, so we don’t learn as much about her thoughts and feelings as we do about his. However, this is so common a flaw in mainstream movies that I can do no more than note it and move on, because if we all stopped watching movies in which female characters remained underdeveloped, there would not be much left to watch.
I’m normally not a fan of rom-coms following in the mold of When Harry Made Sally or You’ve Got Mail, but Photograph is something different (and I did like it, a lot). While the plot still relies on an amazing series of coincidences, the acting is so down to earth and the view offered of modern life in India so generously humanistic that I was quickly won over. Some of the best scenes, in fact, have nothing to do with romance, but paint a portrait of life among the casual laborers of Mumbai, expertly captured by cinematographers Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins. The whole film has a comfortably live-in feel about it, and if you allow yourself to relax into the leisurely pace of Photograph, it may win you over as well. | Sarah Boslaugh