Stateside foreign film audiences get relatively few narrative movies about India that show us, without excess melodrama or musicality, the pace of ordinary, everyday life in that country. Ritesh (The Lunchbox) Batra’s Photograph tries to give us that, in a story of two nondescript people who meet on the street and relate to each other. The question is, how ordinary can you take it?
Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a reserved, single, fortyish man who makes his living snapping souvenir photos of tourists at Mumbai’s Gateway of India plaza. He lives in a humble garret with four or five of his friends, who use a pull-down ladder to get in and out. Rafi has no time for girlfriends. The biggest event in his lonelyhearts existence is the visit of his grandmother (Farrukh Jafar) from the countryside. She sleeps on the floor with the rest of Rafi’s household, and dispenses nonstop advice to her grandson about how to find a wife.
One day Rafi takes the photo of a youngish woman who forgets to pay, and the chance encounter intrigues him. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), also single and a bit dull, lives at home with her middle-class family and studies business administration. Her parents, as well, drop marriage hints in abundance. Miloni and Rafi eventually reconnect and have the mildest sort of dates. They’re possibly the most subdued romantic couple in the history of motion pictures.
The pace of director Batra’s story – he wrote it with Emeara Kamble – is so slow and thoughtful that we have to consciously stop and readjust our expectations. Compared to most hectic Hollywood meet-cutes, this meek, formal character study, with its repeated low-angle shots of feet shuffling across floors, can be compared to sitting in a springtime garden, patiently waiting for a flower to bloom. Not that the blossoming relationship is necessarily unworthy, but we’re not used to such caution and propriety. Photograph’s rewards are doled out by the spoonful, like medicine. And we’re never quite sure if it’s actually good for us.