India’s movie industry isn’t really known for subtlety, Bollywood, in particular, has yet to come to grips with the “less is more” method of filmmaking. Thankfully, there are a number of Indian filmmakers who balk at Bollywood’s gaudy style, overuse of archetypes and cookie-cutter stories. Ritesh Batra is one of those directors, his breakout hit The Lunchbox (2013) wooing crowds with a bittersweet romance sensitively draped over a portrait of Mumbai city. However, in his latest feature, Photograph, Batra may have overcooked his response to Bollywood’s bombastic cliches by giving us a film so contemplative and agonisingly restrained that it will try your patience.
Set in Mumbai, this tale of forbidden love focusses on Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a struggling street photographer whose comically overbearing grandmother is pressuring him to get married. After taking a photo of Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a painfully shy student, he convinces her to pose as his fiancée to appease his grandmother. Predictably, the two develop a romance that is met with the usual roadblocks of social status and other various pitfalls. It’s a somewhat gimmicky premise from which Batra (who also wrote the screenplay) builds his love story, but elevated by the couples very different backgrounds which gives Batra the opportunity to comment on India’s classism. However, Rafi and Miloni’s relationship is so painfully reserved and devoid of charisma it made me want to leap through the screen and slap some life into their doleful expressions. Photograph fast becomes an emotional desert, disengaging to a point where I felt, dare I say it … bored.
By contrast, this romantic yawn is a sensory delight. Cinematographers Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins (Ozark) have pepped up this dreamy tale, capturing Mumbai’s rich textures and drizzling each well-considered frame with treacly golden hues that make the most of a Batra’s solid production design.
However, pretty as it is, the lush visuals can’t overcome Photograph’s impenetrable wall of wistfulness. Moreover, its final act is an abrupt misfire. Batra seems more concerned with showing us how his love story ends differently from others. That, or he simply ran out of ideas on how to finish.