Meet-cutes are the hallmark of any romantic comedy, and although Ritesh Batra’s “Photograph” is more of a genial drama, its meet-cute is so essential to the plot, the film is named after it.
Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Batra’s “The Lunchbox”) is a photographer working the tourists at the Gateway of India in Mumbai. He has a good line for roping in customers: “Years from now, when you look at this photograph, you’ll feel the sun on your face, this wind in your hair, and you’ll hear all these voices again, or it will all be gone. Gone forever.”
It’s this line that persuades Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a student who’s been separated from her family (why she doesn’t seem to be looking for them is anybody’s guess, but a lot of details in this film don’t make sense), to allow Rafi to take her picture. He gives her the photograph, but before she can pay him, her family calls out to her and she runs off. Not a great start to a relationship, but he’s captivated nonetheless.
Rafi’s photos of Miloni come in handy when he hears that his grandmother has been putting the call out for young women whom Rafi might marry. She’s even stopped taking her medication as a sort of strike; in one of the film’s funnier sequences, all of Mumbai seems to have heard this news, and they’re asking Rafi about it, telling him it’s time he settled down. Even his friends are in favor of a union. Rafi doesn’t have much of a reaction — Siddiqui is not a terribly charismatic actor — but he does decide to write his precious Dadi and tell her that he’s met someone. He sends her Miloni’s photo, but says her name is Noori.
Of course, Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar) must hurry and meet her future granddaughter-in-law, which you’d think would put Rafi in a bind. But Batra’s screenplay doesn’t sweat it, taking the easy way out: As populous as Mumbai is, Rafi and Miloni still wind up on the same bus not once but twice. It’s this second time when Rafi somehow talks Miloni off the bus and persuades her to meet Dadi. We don’t hear any of this; we just see the result, which also feels like a cheat.
Why would Miloni agree to this, besides the fact that she seems to be enamored of the photo? (At one point, it gets passed around her classroom. It seems unlikely that classmates would actually care that someone had a nice picture taken of her.) Miloni meets Dadi not once but several times, and soon she and Rafi are meeting without Grandma in tow.
“Photograph” is as quiet as Miloni and as slow as Rafi’s smile. The viewer may become impatient, especially at developments and details that go nowhere. Dadi, too, is a handful, with Jaffar’s voice (which her Dadi has a tendency to raise) grating as she tells Rafi how to run his life. You understand why he just wants to shut her up (though, to be fair, it does eventually seem like he actually cares). Siddiqui, too, doesn’t give Rafi much of a personality, at least nothing nearly as colorful as his sales pitch. Why Miloni is attracted to him is unclear, though what she tells Dadi is this: “When I saw the photograph, I didn’t see myself. I saw someone else. Someone happier than me, and prettier than me.” But considering she lies to Dadi about having lost her parents, you don’t know whether to believe her.
Still, Miloni and Rafi’s shy romance becomes sweet because of, not despite, the languid pace of its development: The couple never goes further than holding hands, and there is a big romantic gesture that you might expect from a film like this. Both details give it the feel of an old-fashioned love story.
Early in the film, Miloni and Rafi go to a movie together, and later we see that Miloni had left early. Rafi follows her, and she wonders if he wants to go back in to see how the movie turns out. “I know the rest of the story,” he says. “The stories are all the same in movies these days.” While you watch “Photograph,” you’ll be thinking the same thing.