If you loved Ritesh Batra’s Lunch Box you should seek this film out, despite the lukewarm reviews. Both revolve around unlikely romances: in the utterly charming Lunchbox it’s between the tiffin (lunchbox) man and an unhappy housewife, and here in Photograph between a low-caste Muslim photographer and a middle-class Hindu student.
Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, also in Lunchbox) plies his trade at the Gateway to India, one of Mumbai’s top tourist destinations; in a world of selfies it’s hard to get a commission. Then a beautiful student (Sanya Malhotra) asks for her photograph to be taken but disappears without paying, much to his annoyance – for not only is the picture beautiful but he needs the cash. In order to shut up his cantankerous grandmother, Dadi, who’s always nagging him to marry, he sends her the photograph. She jumps on a train to meet the bride and he really is in a fix – how can he find the mystery girl?
Quite by chance Rafi sees an enormous billboard from the local accountancy college with Miloni’s photograph and he plucks up courage to ask her to pretend to be his fiancée. Much to his surprise she agrees. This is the part of the film that is quite hard to swallow: Miloni is a really pretty girl, despite her shyness, and Rafi is hardly a handsome suitor. In fact he must be 15 years older than her and of a low caste – and a Muslim – which, even in modern India, still presents quite a barrier. She lives in a smart apartment with a maid, and he shares a room with other jobbing workers, rotating mattresses. These happy-go-lucky chaps are amused to go along with his great deception, at the same time providing some necessary humour to mix up the pace. But Rafi’s encounter with the ghost of their room-mate who committed suicide adds a rather bizarre touch and adds nothing to the plot save an example of how tough life is for country boys who come to seek their fortune in the big city.
Like Lunchbox, there is no great drama, just a slowly blossoming romance fuelled by the insecurity of our young couple and the very impossibility of their situation. They have secret assignations in taxis, drink chai and agree a narrative for Dadi’s arrival.
Miloni is too shy to voice her opposition to the life mapped out for her by her parents – ACA (stuck behind her desk studying every night) and an arranged marriage to a dull husband. The only way she can rebel is by going along with an improbable fantasy. For Rafi, maybe his dreams of a better life can be realised. But it is hard to see where it will all end.
Veteran actor Farrukh Jaffar is simply marvelous as the shrewd old country woman, enjoying shopping for shalwar khameez and other wedding trinkets – touchingly she gives her prized heirloom wedding anklets to Miloni. Such is Miloni’s reticence that it’s hard to fathom her reaction to this priceless gift. It is one of the slightly frustrating things about the film – her lack of visible character and the long silences. It makes it difficult to fathom why she is prepared to risk all for this relationship – even if it would irk her parents what is in it for her in the longer term?
The three-way dynamic keeps the film moving along despite its desultory pace. It’s that meandering which has irked some critics. But I loved the cinematography of Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins. Mumbai is revealed, from its poorer tenement areas to the more affluent apartments of Bandra, I would guess, and the lingering shots reflect the fragility of the moment our lovers inhabit.
My only quibble is there are a few loose ends – there is a missed opportunity in the quest for Miloni’s favourite Cola, but that is perhaps the core theme of the film. Life is not a fairy tale.If you can’t find it on in the cinema, you can download it from Curzon home cinema as we did, and enjoy it with a curry on the sofa.