Six years after his international hit The Lunchbox (2013), Ritesh Batra turns his lens once again on two strangers whose dreams crisscross in Mumbai in Photograph. Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra, the movie follows the friendship between Rafi, a photographer, and the more privileged Miloni, a student. They come close when Miloni agrees to pose as Rafi’s fiance so that his grandmother can stop pressuring him to get married.

Batra fuses the time-tested idea of a pretend romance with themes of class inequalities and religious harmony in the film, which will be released in India on March 15 after screenings at the Sundance and Berlin festivals. Batra was also looking to reinterpret the great cliche of the romance between lovers from different classes that was a staple of Hindi films in the 1980s and ’90s, he told Scroll.in.

“I thought, what if there’s a way to make a movie like that, about a rich girl and a poor guy, but it was believable, it was true and it was organic, and you would believe that these two people would spent time together, actually spend time together,” Batra explained. “So I was really curious about who these two people are – not just where they’re from and what they do, but who they are from inside. The movie is about the corners of our heart that we don’t know exist unless somebody else leads us to them.”

While Batra had Siddiqui in mind for Rafi’s role right from the start (the two had worked together in The Lunchbox), Malhotra, who made her acting debut in 2016 with Dangal, came in through auditions. “I was really lucky to find them because they both brought something to it that elevated it,” Batra said. “They brought their own lives to it.”

Siddiqui’s grandmother is played by the octogenarian Farrukh Jaffar, whose credits include Swades (2004), Sultan (2016) and Secret Superstar (2017). “I had seen her in Umrao Jaan (1981) and Peepli Live and Nawaz knows her and has worked with her,” Batra said. “We needed that familiarity because that shows on screen. She had just suffered an accident, she had broken her hip, but she still agreed to be in the movie and we were lucky to have her.”

Co-produced by Batra’s Poetic License and Amazon Studios, Photograph also stars Sachin Khedekar, Geetanjali Kulkarni and Jim Sarbh.

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Photograph (2019).

Photograph marks Batra’s return to India after two English-language projects. The Sense of An Ending (2013) is based on Julian Barnes’s acclaimed 2011 novel, while Netflix’s Our Souls At Night, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, is an adaptation of Kent Haruf’s book of the same name.

Batra wanted to follow the films up with a story of his own. “I wrote Photograph because I was really eager to come back to my own writing – direct something that I wrote – and I thought to come back home and make a movie was a good way to do that,” he said.

The “home” Batra refers to is Mumbai, where he was born and raised, and which has been inspired both The Lunchbox and Photograph. The Lunchbox, a romance that unfolds through letters exchanged in containers of home-cooked food, would not have been possible without the city’s dabbawalla network. The industriousness of the city’s working class, meanwhile, is embodied by Siddiqui’s Rafi in Photograph. Rafi’s first encounter with Miloni is framed against Mumbai’s landmark, the Gateway of India.

Was it always part of the plan to make another film in Mumbai? “All these characters could only be from Bombay,” Batra said. “I grew up here, I know the place, or at least how it used to be. But no, I don’t have an agenda that I want to make X number of movies in India. I feel like if I can do something well, then I can try my best to make it happen.”

While The Lunchbox was a global success, Photograph is looking at a wide international release following a warm reception at international festivals. Batra said he is not sure what explains the global appeal of his films. “It’s hard to pin it down,” he said. “What I can gauge is that if you are super-true to the details and super-local and specific, then you can also be universal.”

An unlikely romance and unexplained longing are themes that run through The Lunchbox and Our Souls At Night – the latter film follows the growing closeness between two neighbours, both of whom have lost their spouses. Is this a theme Batra is drawn to? “Yeah probably, but I don’t spend so much time thinking about myself because that would be so boring,” he said. “I feel like these characters have a lot of longing. They may know what they’re longing for or not, just like life.”

Ritesh Batra.
Ritesh Batra.