Movie Review: The meek but romantic inherit Mumbai in “Photograph”

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She didn’t want to have her picture taken next to the Gateway to India monument like a tourist or pilgrim to Mumbai. But something about his pitch, about how she’d “look back, see the sun on your face” and have a memory she’d never forget worked.

She didn’t mean to stiff him and not pay for it, but that’s just what she did when friends called her away.

It’s just that the photo left him transfixed.

Maybe she’s feeling guilty, as her friends are all stunned at how flattering the shot turned out as well.

And in one of the most crowded cities on Earth, all they’ve got to do it, you know, run into each other again.

That’s the twitter-length set-up of “Photograph,” Ritesh Batra’s colorful but tepid and utterly inconsequential follow-up to the chaste romance of “The Lunchbox.”

Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a dark-skinned provincial, 30ish and still hustling up money to pay off an old family debt back in Balia. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a painfully timid college coed, studying to be a chartered accountant.

Whatever Rafi doesn’t have in his life, sharing a railside attic with four friends, at least he can call himself a photographer, at least he can send money home to buy back the family home for the grandmother (“Dadi”) who raised him.

Miloni? We’re told she was a student actress, but that dream is as unlikely as Malhotra’s interpretation of Miloni. She is meek as a mouse, bending to whatever her family’s will might be, rarely speaking at all and never speaking in anything above a timid monotone.

“Actress?” Far-fetched.

The first act has them meet-but-not-meet, and sets up an amusing community support system of cousins, uncles and anybody who relocated to Mumbai from Balia, ALL of whom know way too much of Rafi’s business.

Specifically, the taxi driver, the street cart kulfi seller, the shop stall owner, the roommates, each and every one repeats his dadi’s demand that he “find a wife.” Dadi, they tell him, has stopped taking her medication, such is her woe at his lack of urgency in providing her with a great-grandchild.

He sends her a terse note to knock that off, as he’s met someone in the city. Noorie, he says, has “eyes full of questions, but also full of answers.” He sends along the unclaimed photograph of Miloni (he doesn’t know her name) as “proof.”

That’s all Dadi (Farrukh Jaffa) needs. Next thing he knows, the pushy old crone is on a train, coming to meet them, withholding her approval until she does.

Other versions of this old “fake fiance” trope are filled with panic and urgency as the liar (Rafi, in this case) must secure the cooperation of the young woman he’s only met once and whose name he doesn’t know set against the ticking clock of Dadi’s impending arrival.

Batra’s solution to this fraught situation is to skip over it, pretty much, finesse it with some cultural quirks that serve as shortcuts. It’s not the first time he cheats us of “the good parts.”

The second is Miloni’s acquiesence. A lovely moment on a bus, a boldly proffered seat next to her, seemingly wholly out of character for the mousie Miloni.

Batra’s film, in English, Gujarati and Hindi with English subtitles, takes some pointed jabs and Indian pigment prejudice. Every friend, cousin or working slob on the street feels he has the license to question why fairskinned, cosmopolitan Miloni is hanging with a “raisin…your face is black as doomsday.”

Miloni is, conversely, “too delicate” for the street-life and street cuisine he can offer her. “Delhi Belly” isn’t confined to New Delhi. “Ice Candy,” basically a snow cone? You’re asking for intestinal issues, dear.

I love Indian cinema that gives us a sense of the ecosystems of the street, Rafi’s world. That’s the best element of “Photograph.”

But I puzzled and puzzled over the connection between the two. All they seem to share is the sad eyes of resignation. The tiny droplets of empathy that pass between them feel almost meaningless, simply not consequential enough to merit her hiding this play-acting she’s doing with the village guy from her family. What is she playing at, here? Is it nostalgia, a longing for the righteous ruralism of Gandhi?

So much is undeveloped or under-developed. Miloni’s guide to this peasant world might have been her family’s village-born servant. Rafi’s ambition is fired by their meetings, and that has potential, too, only to be dispensed with in cryptic, unsatisfying way.

Only the fiery nuisance Dadi pays off as a character, unschooled and untraveled with wise to the ways of her family.

“Why should I be a bone in your kebab?”

It’s unfair to impose Western standards of screen “chemistry” on movie couples on the Subcontinent, but we’ve got to buy in to the relationship, root for the couple to find common group and hunt for the character arc that will let each grow in the direction of the other.

This couple and this “Photograph” remain undeveloped.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic material

Cast: Sanya Malhotra, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Farrukh Jaffa, Jim Sarbh

Credits: Written and directed by Ritesh Batra. An Amazon release.

Running time: 1:50

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