Six years after the international crossover success of “The Lunchbox,” along comes “Photograph” to prove, whatever Thomas Wolfe may think, that you can go home again. Writer-director Ritesh Batra’s first Indian film since his debut feature has the same quiet streak of wistful sentimentality that made “The Lunchbox” so globally beloved — and, for that matter, the same softly-softly humanity found in his two subsequent English-language efforts, “The Sense of an Ending” and “Our Souls at Night.” Whether roaming the streets of Mumbai or the plains of Colorado, Batra’s filmmaking has remained markedly consistent in tone and texture: You’d be hard pressed to find anyone making nicer films in world cinema right now.
That’s an easy quality to underrate, as is the modest but careful craftsmanship and muted but honest performance style that makes “Photograph” — a film itself about the rewards of patiently building on first impressions — a winsome diversion. At the same time, it’s hard not to wish for an occasional hot surge of uncivil emotion in this mellow May-December romance between a hard-up street photographer and an introverted student from opposing social realms. For all the complex class politics and bottled-up desires at play in its narrative, Batra’s film is perhaps a shade too timid for its own good; it touches the heart, but hovers just short of the soul. That shouldn’t stop this universally appealing tale from charming its way across global arthouses; sales have already been brisk, with Amazon Studios releasing it March 8 in both the U.S. and India.
Credit Batra with some self-awareness in writing his chastely old-fashioned love story, in which the denouement is as easily forecast as it is slow-burning. “The stories are all the same in movies these days,” says middle-aged bachelor Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, rejoining his “Lunchbox” director) to shy, sweet Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) on a tentative date to see a splashy musical spectacle. The difference, of course, lies in the telling. “Photograph” nods affectionately to the overt romanticism of classic Bollywood, the films and songs of which have long fueled Rafi’s unfulfilled fantasies of a better, less lonely life. And yet, the circling strains of Peter Raeburn’s prettily saccharine, somewhat over-present score notwithstanding, the film’s sensibly shod feet are planted in the non-Technicolor real world.
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Indeed, the richest pleasures here are sidewalk-level ones, as Batra and cinematographers Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins capture Mumbai’s restless street life — a careworn procession of haphazard cab drivers, chaiwalas and ice candy vendors — with an unhurried, observational eye. Rafi is a reluctant part of that urban ensemble: Having journeyed from his remote native village in search of work to pay off a family debt, he scrapes together a living photographing sightseers at the Gateway of India, returning every evening to a cramped single room shared with other male workers. When his cantankerous grandmother Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar) sends word from home of her desire for him to marry, he invents a fiancée to ward her off, sending a snap of a beautiful stranger from the Gateway as proof.
The ruse works too well. A thrilled Dadi insists on visiting to approve the union, and Rafi must track down the girl — Miloni, a middle-class accountancy student in her early twenties, also fending off the marriage-minded meddling of her family — and convince her to live the lie with him. It’s a premise with the makings of a screwball farce, though Batra has little interest in playing things that way, focusing instead on the gentle, gradual attraction between two kindred spirits from different ends of the Indian class (and caste) ladder. As opposites-attract studies go, it’s paced and played with unimpeachable delicacy, if a bit lacking in straight-up tinderbox chemistry — one thing that the similarly vanilla “Our Souls at Night,” for example, had in spades with its Jane Fonda-Robert Redford pairing. It’s certainly pleasant to hang out with Rafi and Miloni (to say nothing of Siddiqui and Malhotra, both winning), but “Photograph” can’t quite convince us that these tender souls, two decades apart, are truly mates.
Saddled with the more passively drawn character, Malhotra must contend with the film’s most jarring contradiction: Though Miloni is presented as a modern woman, pursuing career-oriented education and rejecting arranged marital tradition, she remains a slightly wan character, defined and buffeted by the whims and desires of men, dreaming of wholesome domestic bliss in the country, and strangely unquestioning of the play-acting that Rafi requires of her. (Scenes with Jaffar, stridently hilarious as the film’s inadvertent, take-no-prisoners cupid, lend the film some welcome friction by comparison.) In hearkening back to a purer, simpler era of movie romance, this golden-lit comfort blanket of a movie winds up throwing some progressive baby out with the bathwater. Even that, however, it does with the softest of touches.