Ritesh Batra's gentle romantic comedy set in India is beautifully crafted but could use more soul
Photograph opens with Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Rafi positioned at India Gate. The middle-aged photographer waxes poetically about the pictures he sells, telling anyone passing through the tourist spot that when they look at the photograph he takes, they’ll feel the sun on their face and relive the feelings from that moment.
Ritesh Batra’s new film feels like such a photograph, revisiting the themes and reliving the feelings so effectively conjured in his debut feature, 2014’s The Lunchbox.
In the earlier film, homemade food and handwritten letters forged an unlikely connection between two people amidst the hustle and bustle of modern India. This time, a photograph pulls a similar trick. Rafi snaps Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) at India Gate, a picture they each mull over for indescribable reasons, before some convenient developments and a little chance brings them back together.
They’re from opposite worlds. She’s a well-off city kid who is finishing school while her parents entertain a prosperous arranged marriage. He’s from the village, sharing a crowded flat with four other men while sending all his meager earnings to his grandmother, Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar). In order to keep his grandmother from pestering him to find a wife, Rafi sends her Miloni’s photograph, pretending that’s his fiancée. When Dadi comes to visit, Rafi tracks down Miloni and convinces her to play the part.
Batra cooks up a screwball rom-com premise for characters who are so quiet and gentle they elicit sighs rather than laughs. Dadi is the exception. Her affectionately cantankerous attitude earns a few chuckles. But Rafi and Miloni are timid. They linger together, barely showing an impulse or raising a pulse, as if simply allowing a relationship to happen to them.
Unlike the characters from The Lunchbox, whose longings and desires came through in the intimate letters they would pass along to each other, Rafi and Miloni are blank slates for Batra. He limits them to metaphors, their personalities shaped by their environment, which is impeccably and tellingly crafted by the filmmaker. Batra’s artistry has its own distinct, soft-spoken personality and soulfulness. It’s a pity he couldn’t share some of that with the people in his picture.