India-born director Ritesh Batra’s 2013 film “The Lunchbox” led to big English-language movies starring Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Charlotte Rampling. In his latest “Photograph,” Batra returns to his roots with an organic spin on a classic Bollywood theme: love across class divides.
Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a migrant street photographer, selling his portably printed pics to passersby at the Gateway of India monument in Mumbai. His path crosses with shy, star accounting student Miloni (Sanya Malhotra). He sells her a pitch about capturing the moment, and when they go to settle up, she leaves him and the picture behind. That leads to a lie.
Under hard pressure from family and friends to marry, Rafi sends the pic to his grandmother Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar) as a way to assuage her bullying. That plan goes awry when Dadi comes to visit.
Batra acknowledges - in the film even - that a meet-cute formula feels tired. But in "Photograph," he invigorates the trope with poetic subtlety through its performances and cinematography.
Sanya Malhotra plays Miloni as locked up, with vacant eyes that mostly look down. Her lips hardly move when she talks, and sometimes her head shakes a slight "no" as she answers "yes."
"I saw someone happier than me and prettier than me," Miloni said when she talks about Rafi's photograph. It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, but it's the first of an ever-so-slow unwinding for this character.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Rafi is also muted physically, and in his volume. It's his words that communicate a monotone impatience, frustration, nostalgia.
These feel like authentic portrayals of characters more than half-sleeping through life.
Watching them slowly settle into each other and share vulnerabilities is the allure in "Photograph."
In one scene, Miloni and Rafi depart. On her cab ride home, the camera is positioned behind Miloni's head. In her muted voice, she asks the cabbie to turn the music up. It's the first sign of art appreciation, of being present. The tune floods the car, the frame, the next scene - a perfect illustration of waking up through connection.
Mimicking his characters' awakening, Batra's shots become more complex and stunning as the film progresses.
In Rafi's shared boarding room, Miloni sifts through photographs she finds of herself. The camera captures her reflected in a couple of mirrors, as if her own self-perception is splitting, widening before our eyes.
This film mixes the modern with the past, sharing buzz opinions without judgment.
And Batra even injects a disarming charm through the kindnesses and camaraderie of his characters.
It's easy to sense his affection for Mumbai and its wisdom. "The longer I live, the more pain it is, but the longer I live, the pain hurts less," said one character.
"Photograph" is an understated delight - slower to build, and worth the wait in its simplicity.
Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Sachin Khedekar
Director: Ritesh Batra
Writer: Ritesh Batra
Rating: PG-13 for some thematic material
Opening Friday at Zinema