Imbuing what are essentially very conventional potboiler-y Bollywood plots – the mistaken delivery of a dabba to a lonely person who turns out to be the dissatisfied wife’s soulmate in “The Lunchbox,” and the chance encounter between two complete lonely strangers through a photograph here – with a European art-house sensibility doesn’t sound like a workable fusion of styles. But, director Ritesh Batra allows the old-school Bollywood romantic charm to float around so quietly, and delicately in his bustling version of Mumbai (created terrifically through the sound design that consistently emphasizes the diegetic sounds present in the environment) that the styles feel like a beautiful match. Like in “The Lunchbox,” in “Photograph” too, Batra uses old Hindi music beautifully, weaving together a tale of two lonely souls connected in that Keiślowskian way – through sounds that resonate much more than the societal differences existing between Rafi and Miloni.
This quiet poeticism of the love between the two introverts provides the beating heart of the film, with both Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra excelling in capturing the internalization required to make these characters distinctly Ritesh Batra characters. Some reviews have noted that Malhotra’s Miloni, especially, feels like a “cipher.” However, I think Malhotra really gets introversion in a sense that she made me believed that her character is partly naturally shy, but is also partly inexpressive because of her upper-middle-class upbringing (the cinematography too emphasizes this boxed-in feeling that her character feels at her home by framing her within other frames). Siddiqui too is equally magnificent. It’s a particular delight for me to watch him in these “lighter” roles that go against his criminal persona that Bollywood has typecast him in. Watching him underplay the romance so well reminds me of the versatility he can tap into to transform into different characters.
What’s even more impressive is how Batra subtly uses his two characters and their interactions with each other and the supporting characters to note how the existing class and religious differences inevitably construct a hurdle in romances. It’s not a revelatory message, and several traditional Bollywood films also address similar problems that couples have to face in India (something that Batra openly acknowledges in what I believe is one of the missteps in the movie). But, it’s (again) the delicate way in which the director communicates these ideas to the audience that makes them feel substantial. My favorite of these moments comes in the several scenes Miloni shares with her house-help (an astoundingly good Geetanjali Kulkarni), and how that relationship evolves throughout the film. From quietly replying to her helper that she wants nothing to sharing her secrets and dreams with her by quietly sitting with her on the floor and not her chair, Miloni’s character demonstrates the oppressive nature of the class system that she feels suffocates her. She envies a simpler life, what she believes to be in the life led by Rafi, and her relationship with her house-help beautifully depicts the transformation her character is going through.
It’s surprising then that in the film’s final act it loses the sensitivity that had me invested in it until that point. There’s a particular scene involving a cameo appearance by an eccentric actor whose presence and role in the film destroyed the spell that Batra had me in for the rest of the film. It’s a character who feels so mechanically placed in the film that, otherwise, has such a fluid approach to it that the introduction of such a scene almost feels like a violent intrusion. Batra then further indulges in wanting to make “Photograph” more elusive and ambiguous, almost seeming too eager to separate it from a traditional love story. Unlike “The Lunchbox,” however in which the open-ended narrative felt apt, in “Photograph” it ends up diluting the film’s emotional impact.
I wish Batra had stuck to his minimalist sensibilities till the end. Nonetheless, for a large part of the film, whatever image he did craft managed to leave a lasting impression in my mind.