A premise that suggests rom-com hokum gives rise to a believable and charming romance when presented by Indian writer-director Ritesh Batra in “Photograph.”
Opening Friday at the Embarcadero, the film won’t please those averse to understated, unhurried storytelling, but this appealing, gentle dramedy about two people caught between family obligation and personal happiness deserves an audience.
Batra, who also made the Indian arthouse hit “The Lunchbox” and the underrated English-language “The Sense of an Ending,” combines Hollywood-style opposites-attract comedy, realist drama and tinges of magical realism and nostalgia in this Mumbai-set tale.
Like “The Lunchbox,” it centers on two people who, via only-in-the-movies circumstances, develop deep feelings for each other.
Sheltered, 20-something Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) lives with her middle-class family and a housemaid (Geetanjali Kulkarni) whose rustic origins intrigue her. Dutifully, Miloni attends accounting classes and dines with men her parents deem husband material.
Village-bred, older Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) photographs visitors at tourist sites for a living and shares a one-room flat with several friends. He sends his earnings home to pay off a family debt.
The two first meet at the Gateway to India, where Miloni impulsively lets Rafi take her picture. To stop his grandmother, Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar), from pressuring him to marry, Rafi mails the old woman the photo of Miloni, identifying her as his fiancee. When Dadi informs Rafi that she’s coming to Mumbai to approve the union, Rafi tracks down Miloni. She agrees to pretend to be his beloved.
The charade succeeds, Miloni enjoys the adventure, and Rafi and Miloni, despite (or perhaps because of) their contrasting backgrounds, feel drawn to each other. They go on platonic dates, which have romantic undertones. Both long for a different life and simpler times.
Batra is no Wong Kar-wai when it comes to presenting subsurface romantic electricity. Miloni and Rafi generate only moderate heat.
And Miloni’s character is underdeveloped. We don’t know what she is thinking and feeling.
But if the earth doesn’t move, the movie still strikes the right chords and succeeds as an enticing, entertaining story of budding attraction and meaningful connection.
Rafi, solidly played by Siddiqi, a star in Hindi cinema, and Malhotra’s less concretely defined but touchingly sad-looking Midori move us to stick with them, all the way to the film’s tenderly satisfying ending.
This multifaceted movie additionally addresses Indian class divides and considers whether photographs capture truths or lie.
Batra’s organically flowing filmmaking absorbs viewers into the characters’ lives and the atmosphere of bustling Mumbai, with its taxicabs, street-food vendors and ever-present juxtapositions of old and new.
Even an encounter with a ghost unfolds with a natural quality.
Jaffar, a veteran actress, is a comic joy as the marriage-obsessed grandma.
Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Geetanjali Kulkarni
Written and directed by: Ritesh Batra
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes