Not all adventures involve dragons, and not every drama has to be epic. Emotions can run just as deep in small-scale stories set in the real world, with lives, futures and the possibility of happiness all at stake.
Take the very small, gently rendered Indian film Photograph. Set in modern-day Mumbai, it’s about two people of very diverse backgrounds who may have the chance to alter the course of their own and each other’s lives—if only they dare to seize the day. Writer-director Ritesh Batra, who made the charming middle-aged romance The Lunchbox a few years back, is not as sure-footed in his storytelling this time. Still, Photograph is an unassuming, life-sized antidote to the grand-scale blockbuster mentality.
Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a street photographer haunting the Gateway of India monument in Mumbai, taking pictures of tourists on site for a small fee. (He carries a portable printer with him to process the image.) His line of patter is unchanging, and a trifle bored, pitched to hundreds of passersby every day. He shares a tiny living space (accessible only by a trap-door in a ceiling) with a bunch of other guys who all crash on the floor communally every night.
Fortysomething Rafi sends almost all of his earnings home to his grandmother in the small outlying village where she raised him and his sisters. He has a grandiose plan to ultimately pay off a debt incurred by his late father and buy back the family home for her, a plan he doggedly pursues. But all she really cares about is seeing him married and presenting her with great-grandchildren.
Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a shy, middle-class girl who lives in a nice apartment with her family and a cook/housekeeper. She’s taking a class in accounting, but she has no other particular direction. She does nurture a tiny rebellious streak, however, as we see her ditch her Mum and sister on a shopping trip to melt into the crowd outside the Gateway of India for some free time to herself.
When Rafi offers to photograph her, she poses and pays—but disappears before he can complete the transaction. He learns his grandmother has stopped taking her medications to protest his bachelorhood, so he sends her the photo of Miloni, saying she’s his fiancée. Of course, his granny wants to come meet her, so Rafi has to track down Miloni and beg her to play the part of his fiancée.
We know where this story is going, but filmmaker Batra makes some endearing choices along the way. Farrukh Jaffar is great as the cranky, opinionated granny, Dadi. (When Rafi stoically pledges to buy back her home and make up for the lean times, Dadi barks, “Stop wearing those years like a medal!”) There’s a timely appearance by the roommates’ resident ghost, who also advises Rafi to make the most of his life.
Malhotra’s reserved Miloni is lovely, but scowling Rafi is kind of a stick. Dadi keeps saying he has the same “crooked smile” as his grandfather, but we (and Miloni) hardly ever see it. And Batra is so intent on sticking up close and personal with his characters, charting their subtle emotional shifts in observant close-ups, that he sometimes cheats the viewer out of the bigger scenes.
We see Rafi stalking Miloni around the neighborhood, working up the nerve to speak to her again, then we see her considering his proposal. But we don’t see him make it, and we’re left wondering how he framed the idea to induce this complete stranger to go along with his plan. Later, he goes far out of his way to track down an item he knows she likes but is no longer commercially available, but we’re not shown any scene where he presents it to her. These are small things, but in a movie of tiny moments, they might have made the bond at its center that much more persuasive.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra and Farrukh Jaffar. Written and directed by Ritesh Batra. An Amazon release. Rated PG-13. 110 minutes.