Photograph is a warm romance
The plot of Photograph sounds like just about any romantic comedy ever made. You could take the same concept, drop a Josh Lucas or a Kristen Bell into it and call it a day. It’s so simple and obvious on paper, but where Photograph earns its place above such frivolities is in the way it uses foreign societal norms to push its story forward. Yes, the bare bones plot reeks of familiarity, but the cultural details make it feel fresh, taking the mundane and turning it into something not so dismissible.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Rafi, a young man in Mumbai working as a photographer in order to payoff an old family debt. He is unmarried, undereducated, and explicitly disinterested in doing anything outside of getting his debt paid. His grandmother, meanwhile, has stopped taking her medication in protest of Rafi’s ways. She desperately wants him to take a wife and get his life into order. Elsewhere, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a young woman who, much like Rafi, behaves differently than her family would like her to, opting for an education and a career instead of settling down with a man and performing wifely duties as needed.
With Rafi’s grandmother coming to visit, he asks Miloni to pose as his new fiancée, and as they engage in this ruse, the pair forms a genuine bond that neither could have really expected. We in the audience, well, we definitely could have expected it. That’s just how things like this go. Yet, we don’t have very many of the typical plot beats. There’s no moment where Rafi and Miloni are put on the spot to improvise a “how we met” scenario with comically conflicting information and zany back pedaling. There’s no scene where a recently angered Miloni is driving off to an unspecified future much to the chagrin of Rafi who finds himself running through traffic to catch her while the Gin Blossoms play in the background. Miloni doesn’t have a sassy group of friends who say hilariously opinionated things while playfully talking smack on their husbands. Rafi isn’t tasked with a buddy who gives him explicitly anti-romantic advice because he was once wronged by a lover and it broke him (but it was really his fault). Nope, none of that.
What Photograph does have is a deliberately paced, quiet romance blossoming between two people who are very distinctly not looking for it. Both are on a quest of self-discovery, and each are semi-reluctantly finding it through the other. While their chemistry doesn’t really pop off of the screen, that’s hardly the intention of Photograph. Instead, their bond is a cautious one, one which sees both parties giving consideration to the social customs that their friends and family innocently pressure them into following. Rafi and Miloni are drawn to one another but are resistant to giving in to an unplanned romantic detour.
The metered pace does hurt the film at points, especially since a lot of the plot is assumed. For example, we never actually see Rafi pitching his ruse to Miloni. He just sits next to her on a bus one day, and shortly thereafter their fake engagement is set into motion. Had I not read the plot synopsis beforehand, it may have taken me a while (perhaps too long) to figure out just what was happening. At the same time, I wonder if this is because Photograph is a foreign film, ostensibly made with a more local audience in mind. With social customs being different in Mumbai, we can reasonably assume that certain informational holes are filled in by the lived experience of the intended audience. Since the rules and roles are different ‘round these parts, I happily accept the responsibility to educate myself rather than hold the film narratively liable.
Because in the end, it’s the depiction of cultural differences in life planning, gender expectations, and general outlook that make Photograph a film that I keep thinking back on. This is due in equal parts to the charming central performances, the assured direction by Ritesh Batra, and the warm humor that comes from believable family bonds. Most of all, my fondness for Photograph comes from its function as a window into a world that I don’t typically get to see.
Photograph opens in Philly theaters today.