If you think Hollywood endings are unrealistic, trying living up to a Bollywood ending. Happily-ever-afters a simply beyond the reach of a poor, marginalized street worker like Rafi. Ostensibly, the educated Miloni has more advantages, but she is also restricted by social norms and her family’s expectations. Yet, maybe, just maybe, they can make some kind of connection in Ritesh Batra’s Photograph, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Rafi sort of gets by working as a street photographer, selling souvenir photos to tourists at the Gateway of India. One day, he takes Miloni’s picture, but she disappears to avoid her overbearing family before Rafi can complete the transaction. He repurposes her photo, sending it to his grandmother Dadi, hoping to allay her fears he will never marry. When their paths cross again, Miloni agrees to pretend to be his fiancée, for the sake of his Dadi.
As you might expect, Miloni and Rafi start to develop some kind of feelings for each other during the course of their play-acting. Of course, the radical differences in their respective life-experiences lead to complications, but this is not a farce or even a rom-com. Very little is played for laughs. The narrative itself is pretty simple and straightforward. Instead, Batra’s screenplay is all about discrete, fleeting moments of beauty—and the pain that comes later.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra will make you absolutely ache for this almost-couple. They have real, heart-felt chemistry as Rafi and Miloni, but their relationship is so chaste, it hurts. There is so much left unsaid between them, because it can’t be said—and it doesn’t need to be verbalized for us to understand it. They are the film, but Farrukh Jaffar ratchets up the poignancy even further as Rafi’s loving but shrewd Dadi.
Batra also makes canny use of the Mumbai locales. Much like the worlds of its characters, the city sometimes looks grand and stately and other times appears to be grubby and desperate. Batra does not exactly wrap things up in a neat little bow, which seems to have divided those at yesterday’s screening, but that is how life goes. You just have to focus on the good parts while they last.