India (2019) Dir. Ritesh Batra

Families. They mean well but sometimes can’t help themselves interfering in others’ lives when things would be better if they worried about their own affairs. Luckily, most of us live in a country or culture where this can be thwarted with a civil word – others aren’t so lucky, if they happen to live in a country where it is a part of their culture to appease their parents’ wants and whims.

Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a forty year-old street photographer struggling to earn a wage taking pictures of tourists at the Gateway of India monument to pay off family debt. Along with the debt, Rafi also has to endure constant pestering from his elderly grandmother Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar) to get married, refusing to take her medicine until he finds a wife.

One day Rafi takes a picture of shy, well-to-do economic student Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) but she runs off before paying. To keep Dadi off his back, Rafi sends her a letter with the photo of Miloni, naming her Noorie, saying he has finally find his woman. Unfortunately, Dadi decides to arrive in Mumbai to meet Noorie and arrange the wedding, forcing Rafi to track Miloni down and encourage her to adopt the pretence until Dadi returns home.

Having tried his luck with English language films, Indian director Ritesh Batra returns to his homeland hoping to recapture the magic of his debut The Lunchbox with this gentle romantic drama. Sharing a similar premise with The Lunchbox of two people connecting via unusual circumstances, Photograph is a little more direct with its endgame potentially being more than platonic, hoping the sham relationship works as a sufficient swerve for a different ending.

There is an ironic moment at the end after Rafi and Miloni have walked out of a cinema, with Rafi bemoaning “The stories are all the same in movies these days” – Photograph’s plot is hardly original though the telling of it tries to be. Batra plays it cool, maybe a little too cool, in bringing these two social opposites together, struggling to even get the “will they, won’t they?” concept to the starting line let alone make it the driving force of the story.

Which it is of course, but Batra buries it beneath the silent angst of the two leads as they fail to recognise this themselves, not because they know they’re not actually supposed to feel this way but because they know they shouldn’t even if they want to. They may not discuss things between each other but the viewer is made away early on that Rafi and Miloni comes from vastly different backgrounds, and this caste structure usually dictates ne’er the twain shall meet.

Something they share which is universal is both their families are pressuring them into marrying – Miloni is only in her mid-twenties but very busy with her studies as the smart one in the family; Rafi is much older and lives in a slum with four other men – and Dadi when she arrives – as all his money goes to paying off the family debt.

Dadi is an odd character in that she is sometimes a source of amusement with her blind enthusiasm towards Rafi and Molini’s faux coupling, yet at the same time, for us in the west at least, is infuriating in her constant badgering and emotional blackmail about how Rafi should live his life and not “bringing dishonour to the family” shtick.

Rafi is unfortunately to timid and nice to tell Dadi to mind her own business whilst also choosing not to burden Molini with this issue, who understands all too well herself. She however, hasn’t even told her own family about Rafi; despite being an aloof wallflower, Miloni is quite the modern woman in wanting to maintain her independence and marry if and when she is ready.

Yet, there is another ironic paradox here a Miloni is so reserved and inexpressive that by not being more vocal about living her own life her way, she is in effect playing the role of the dutiful daughter anyway, thus is no different from every other young woman forced onto the marriage market by their family. We spend the entire film hoping Miloni will find her spine and stand up for herself but it never comes; this is also true of Rafi, so what chance do they have of happiness if they can’t communicate anything to anyone?

Again, this is Batra subverting the very essence of this tale by not playing into its well-worn conventions and one reason why this film tends to drift along aimlessly in search of first gear. In some ways this is refreshing in not presenting us with a film fraught with histrionics and lachrymose melodrama, but too chaste and sangfroid in its mood it needs a heart monitor on the screen to check it still has a pulse.

Batra apparently intended this film to be a love letter to Mumbai and indeed it has been captured in many different lights, be it the busy streets full of noisy cars, the sweatiness of the slums and the picturesque majesty of the historical landmarks. It’s all shot incredibly well, though doesn’t come across as enticing as it might have hoped but it certainly feels authentic.

Even with plenty of characters, this film is about Rafi, Miloni, and Dadi. Only the latter has any personality even if it is often irritating but Farrukh Jaffar is clearly having a ball. Nawazuddin Siddiqui slips into the background too easily as Rafi yet I doubt anyone else could have played him, same for Sanya Malhotra as Miloni but both seem very aware of what Batra expects of them.

Photograph ends on a very abrupt and frustrating note that will either beguile or make people think they’ve wasted the previous 100 minutes. It’s a curious film that is oddly charming despite lacking in dynamism, or to be blunt, it’s perhaps too nice for its own good.