Ritesh Batra stole the hearts of moviegoers the world over with his gentle romance The Lunchbox in 2013, and after some uncertain English-language movies he has returned to India with this odd, enigmatic high-concept love story set in Mumbai. Photograph has some beautifully shot moments, and Batra sometimes captures the city with something approaching the rapture with which Wong Kar-wai captures Hong Kong. Yet it is weirdly opaque and internalised, and doesn’t ever really come to life.
This is a romance in which the lovers do no more than briefly touch hands. They rarely even smile at each other, and their voices are hardly ever raised higher than a murmur. Photograph is elliptical, so much so that I almost suspect some scenes have been lost in the edit. The plot turns on a photograph that we never see. The lovers meet under extraordinary circumstances that they do not discuss, and their relationship develops by way of dishonesty and imposture with regard to a third party, which never appears to trouble them. Batra has his male character go on a gallant quest to seek out a defunct brand of cola somewhere in the city to give to his loved one because she adored drinking it as a child. Yet we never see him give it to her, never see her drinking it, never see her eyes lighting up at the memory or lighting up at the thought of what this man has done – nothing like that.
Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a struggling street photographer taking snaps of tourists in Mumbai – a tough job when everyone these days can take selfies on their smartphones. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a delicate, unhappy young woman who happens to walk past and he chivvies her into posing for a photo. She appears entranced by the snap he hands her (he can print it by means of a cumbersome, boxy device slung round his neck) and in something of a daze she wanders off without paying. Rafi, too, is mesmerised by how great this photograph is (we, the audience, must take it on trust). As it happens, his revered grandmother Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar) is always nagging him to get married so, on a whim, Rafi sends her this photo, claiming it is of his fiancee.
But then his grandmother proposes to come and visit. How is Rafi going to produce this woman in the flesh? Through a bizarre quirk of fate, Rafi sees another very important photograph: a billboard advertising an evening class in accountancy with Miloni at the top as the star pupil. By hanging around outside the school building, Rafi is able to strike up a conversation, tell her what’s happening and persuade her to go along with the deception – although we never see any of that conversation, and the bizarre randomness of it all is accepted by both with a placid calm.
All this could be the basis of a Green Card-type romp, or a conventional romantic comedy of some sort. Not here. Comedy is not the point. Photograph is deadpan and restrained – and so are its lead characters, as if they are in sad and timid denial about the implications of what is happening and the passionless nature of the lives they have been leading until now. Miloni never worries about what is happening, even when she accepts valuable jewellery from Dadi as a dowry gift. Is she planning to give it back to Rafi later?
For all this, the movie floats calmly and confidently along, with Rafi dealing with his cantankerous gran and Miloni rejecting the dull bore her parents have lined up for her to marry. There is an intriguing scene when Rafi has a conversation with a ghost, played by the veteran Indian character actor Vijay Raaz. With this scene, Batra is perhaps signalling that that his film is not to be judged by realist criteria.
It is a curious work, but to some extent saved by the forthright, enjoyable performance of Jaffar as the old woman.