Under the basking sun of the Mumbai heat, photographer Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) charms tourists outside the Gateway of India, offering them an instant photograph to capture their memory of being there before it is lost forever. Then, under pressure from her family to get a degree, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) sits with her peers reciting back textbook logic about accounting; apathy growing in her eyes. Two kindred spirits, disillusioned with their lives but unsure of how to change things.
Miloni finds herself at the gate being photographed by Rafi, yet disappears before it’s even developed. Facing pressure from his grandmother about marriage, Rafi manages to find her and convinces Miloni to play his girlfriend while his elderly relative is in town. In most films, this would be the ‘meetcute’ of a lovey-dovey poetic storyline, but not for Batra, whose subtleties found in THE LUNCHBOX (2013) can also be seen in PHOTOGRAPH. The pair barely have any physical chemistry, yet they seem instantly settled around each other, quietly adoring and intrigued by this strange occurrence in their lives.
It’s not quite evident what they see in each other at times; Miloni has a very structured day with studying but is also profoundly lonely, Rafi is caught in this line of work as he attempts to pay back family debts whilst yearning for something more. What the subtleties of their story do display is how the pair don’t suddenly become each other’s lives, but rather add to them in positive ways. What is most endearing about the individual protagonists is their sense of inner silence; while others are brimming with vivacious intensity in the bustle of the city, Rafi and Miloni ponder peacefully instead. While it may be mistaken for complacency, especially by their close friends and family who only want the best, they are simply taking their time with the world as the bustle around them simmers.
The film is brimming with dry humour, mostly coming from the persistent and brilliant grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) winding up Rafi a treat without being too badgering. The street vendors he passes at night also ask him about his day in a parrot-like fashion, to the taunting of his housemates despite them all still being in the same boat. There is a sense of harmony between them all and satisfaction in this life.
On reflection, the initial cynicism that can be felt for Rafi’s work as a tourist photographer, a promise of that instant photo being ‘lost forever’ if not captured, is broken down by the film itself. The act almost felt like the manufacturing of a moment, the capitalisation of time; when in fact it’s just people making a living and does capture sentiments of those in front of the lens. It’s easy to forget the essentialism of tourism in many parts of the world, not lining the pockets of corporations but just allowing families to get by. Rafi is incredibly earnest and likeable in that sense, exceptionally selfless by being the sole provider for his sister’s wedding, to paying off his parents debts. While the film isn’t oozing with lustful romance, it does delicately show the unspoken love the pair have for their families by silently working away at their crafts without ever grumbling.
The beautiful subtleties in PHOTOGRAPH are rare traits: ones asking the viewer to search themselves for their own meaning. But this is also where the film does fall short at times, requiring a little more substance or drama just to elevate itself a little and prevent it from feeling so flat. The film is a contented one, with exquisite performances from Siddiqui and Malhotra, and so PHOTOGRAPH is embodied as a curious but calm story about an enigmatic pair and strange encounters.