A man and woman from different walks of life share a brief, awkward encounter. They meet again sometime later, thanks in part to happenstance (and also, the man’s persistence). For reasons both cultural and narratively convenient, the two pretend to be a couple in order to appease his overbearing grandmother. Of course, the deceptive act gives way to genuine affection.
If such plotting sounds like a tale (or several) you’ve heard before, it’s because in his sentimental drama “Photograph,” the writer and director Ritesh Batra intends for it to — as one character matter-of-factly states to another, “movies are all the same.” That’s probably an overstatement, but there is enough here to discover amid the obvious.
Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a street photographer, struggling to pay off a family debt. He sets up shop in front of the tourist-packed Gateway of India in Mumbai, where he meets Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a younger woman who lives comfortably with her parents while studying to become an accountant.
Neither are very happy before they meet. All any of Rafi’s friends and family can talk about is the fact that he’s unmarried, with no children — word has reached him that his grandmother, or dadi in Hindi, has supposedly stopped taking her medication in protest. Rafi, worn down, sends her a photo of Miloni with a letter falsely identifying her as his love interest.
The shy and quiet Miloni is disinterested in her parents’ plan for her to get a good job and a husband, dreaming of leaving the city for a quiet life in a village. When she agrees to pose as Rafi’s love interest for his dadi (Farrukh Jaffar), who is eager to visit Mumbai to meet Miloni, it’s a welcome break from the monotony of her own life.
If the story is familiar, the storytelling can be immersive — Batra shades in the leads and their worlds with a human specificity that makes “Photograph” compelling in a slice-of-life way, particularly regarding class in India. A cabdriver becomes testy with Rafi and is quick to pronounce that he has a degree in English despite his current professional status. Miloni shares a close bond with her family’s live-in housekeeper, and their conversations before bedtime succinctly reveal another way in which hierarchy casually plays out in the everyday.
And Rafi and Miloni’s relationship isn’t just improbable to their family and friends because of the difference in their means, but because of, in part, India’s deeply ingrained color-caste system: Several characters make disparaging comments about Rafi’s darker skin, compared with Miloni’s fair complexion. (His grandmother laments that her grandson works in the sun all day, and is now a “black raisin.”) Such societal details aren’t hammered in; they’re embedded as seamlessly as they tend to be in real life.
As in Batra’s feature debut, “The Lunchbox,” which also saw an unlikely pair fall for each other under rom-com-like circumstances, the desire for human connection is never far from mind. Sometimes, as it does here, the search for that connection makes the journey a pleasure, no matter how conventional.