Sundance 2019: “Photograph” Has Its World Premiere

“Photograph” plays on screen with quiet fortitude, framing the relationship between two people whose lives intersect in Mumbai, a meeting that changes their lives in unexpected ways. The film is directed by Ritesh Batra and it received positive reviews after its screening in Park City this week. The film was produced by Amazon Studios and is scheduled to appear at the upcoming 69th Berlin International Film Festival next month, presented under the Berlinale Special films category.

This film focuses on a struggling street photographer and how he develops a tender relationship with a wealthy city girl. Set in Mumbai, the film touches the heart as these two unlikely lovers from opposite sides of the social strata see their lives transformed in ways that they could not expect.

Ritesh Batra, director of Photograph, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Oksana Kanivets.

We meet Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an honorable man who ekes out a living as a street photographer, falling for Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) one day as she agrees to have her picture taken in front of the Taj hotel. Their encounter is brief with Sanya running away to rejoin her family, leaving an enchanted Rafi with nothing but her mesmerizing photograph.

Pressured to marry by his grandmother (Rafi learns that his grandmother has stopped taking her medication because he has yet chosen a bride) he quickly tracks down Miloni and convinces the stranger to pose as his fiancée, quickly developing into a subtle yet dynamic relationship.

The movie successfully examines the social expectation of relationships in a culture where marriage is deemed essential for virtually everyone. Both characters come from radically different backgrounds; Miloni’s wealthy parents are nudging her toward marriage, arranging meetings with eligible men while Rafi continues to work on the streets and refuses to get married—at odds with his grandmother (played with dynamism by Farrukh Jaffar), who feels that there is no greater event in a family than a wedding.

Production designer Shruti Gupte and cinematographer Ben Kutchins capture the spirit of Mumbai in mesmerizing form. It’s hard to imagine another film in which this densely populated city on India’s west coast has looked so seductive. It’s also exquisitely shot—you almost want to step into the screen and breathe in the culture.

“Photograph” frames this slow-burning relationship with hypnotic effect, focused tightly on the affection growing between Rafi and Miloni. What makes it work is that it’s such a subtle way of telling a story, told with a glance or a gesture as two people slowly recognize their growing mutual affection. It’s subtle, but the powerful acting is alluring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Rafi is quiet and brooding, aware of his duties but a romantic at heart, while Miloni is distant and somewhat complacent as Miloni, attracted to Rafi’s quiet solitude.

Batra is recognized for directing the critically acclaimed indie Indian feature “The Lunchbox,” a charming, whimsical film that garnered much praise, also features a slow-burning relationship, aptly handled with poignancy and wit against the backdrop of a teeming metropolis.