The events that take place in Ritesh Batra’s Photograph are as forced as its premise: a photographer who shoots visitors to Mumbai’s Gateway of India monument persuades a vastly younger chartered accountancy student to pose as his girlfriend to deflect pressure from his grandmother to get married. Along the way, the two strike up a relationship that the movie hopes will be mistaken for love.

It is fitting that Ritesh Batra’s fourth feature prominently features the Gateway of India. A touristic view of Mumbai plagues Photograph over its 110-minute duration, from its character sketches and use of locations to its understanding of the way class and religion operate in Mumbai.

Rafiq (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) shares a single room in a slum with his friends and has a grandmother back home who is keen on seeing him married. A chance encounter with the studious and shy Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) shows Rafiq a way out: he passes off Miloni as his lover Noorie. Miloni, who is chafing at parental control and seemingly keen on adventure, plays along. When the grandmother (Farrukh Jafar) arrives in Mumbai, she gets so busy clucking over Noorie that she fails to notice the obvious – the economic and cultural differences between the pretend lovers that all the lies in the world cannot bridge.

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Photograph (2019).

The highly improbable bond that is forged over wordless glances, hushed exchanges and half-smiles indicates that Photograph is setting itself up at a remove from the average mainstream Hindi movie. At the same time, Photograph tries to prove its Hindi cinema credentials. Rafiq is inspired by the song Noorie Noorie in picking a name for Miloni. When the two go on a movie date, Teesri Manzil from 1966 is playing at one of the city’s remaining single-screen cinemas.

Nostalgia for a gentler and unhurried Mumbai, where the only sounds that matter are of older Hindi film music, similarly characterised Batra’s debut feature The Lunchbox (2013). That movie proposed an epistolary romance in the age of email. Photograph takes a firm stand against the smartphone and Instagram. The movie appears to be taking place in the 1990s (the defunct beverage brand Campa Cola becomes a cherished memory), but Photograph doesn’t have enough depth to justify its time-capsule trappings. If Batra, who has also written the screenplay, is suggesting a private Mumbai within the real metropolis, where twee romance across the economic and religious divide can proceed untrammelled, the idea disappears as quickly as Miloni’s wonderment over Rafiq’s proposal.

The unlikely relationship yields at least one solid and nicely pitched performance. Sanya Malhotra is impressive as the watchful and reserved class topper whose life isn’t her own, but who knows more than she lets on. Miloni’s flair for drama peeks through in unexpected ways (such as the moment when she cooks up a back story for her Noorie to Rafiq’s grandmother). Although Miloni appears to be slumming it out, Malhotra manages to suggest that her character might actually have nobler motives.

Sanya Malhotra and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Photograph. Courtesy Amazon Studios/ Filmscience/Poetic License/The Match Factory.
Sanya Malhotra and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Photograph. Courtesy Amazon Studios/ Filmscience/Poetic License/The Match Factory.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui, struggling with a poorly etched character and cod dialogue, doesn’t quite manage to make Rafiq credible. Farrukh Jafar, as the token cuddly grandmother whom the movies love, isn’t as charming as Photograph thinks she is. The always wonderful Geetanjali Kulkarni has a cameo as Miloni’s maid who gives her a glimpse into how the other half lives. Sachin Khedekar is somewhere in the movie too, as is Jim Sarbh. The aim is to be understated, but the result is underdeveloped.

Corrections and clarifications:

Teesri Manzil was released in 1966, not 1967 as previously stated.