The best moment in The Lunchbox, the insanely underrated 2013 film by Ritesh Batra about a homemaker whose warm lunches end up getting delivered to a stranger, is the ending. While I won’t spoil it for you here, suffice it to say that it’s an absolutely perfect note on which to end an already lovely movie. The fact that I remember it at all more than five years later is a testament to Batra’s storytelling skill, teasing his audiences with an outcome while managing not to ruin it entirely.
Batra has directed a few films since then, largely forgettable and neither of which he wrote; Photograph marks his return to writing credits, this time presenting the story of a photographer who peddles touristy snapshots at one of Mumbai’s biggest attractions, the Gate of India, and a young woman from a well-off family who’s being pressured to marry and begin her life with someone. When the two cross paths in the plaza in front of the Gate and Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) convinces Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) to let him take her picture, and sparks fly.
Well, to a point. There’s a lot of deep gazing and pensive expressions, and it’s clear these two have made a connection. For better or worse, that’s about as passionate as their relationship gets, even as their paths cross again and their lives become ever more entwined. Rafi is from a rural village, moved to the city to earn money he can send back home, living in a one-room apartment above the train tracks with at least half a dozen other bachelors. In one of the film’s more charming sequences, literally everyone and his brother stops Rafi while he’s walking through the market to inquire about his finding a wife; it’s a nod to the Indian culture’s priority on family and community, that everyone knows everyone and everyone is connected, and it’s adorable.
Unfortunately, much of the film can’t seem to muster the same endearing sentiment, instead getting bogged down in those long, pensive gazes and stakes that remain so low it’s difficult to care about them. In order to keep his family back home happy, Rafi tells his grandmother that he has in fact met someone he plans to marry, sending her Miloni’s picture under a made up name. Meanwhile, Miloni is studying to be an accountant and grinning and bearing the various matches her parents put in front of her for marriage. Something’s missing for her, but neither she nor we know quite what.
All goes a bit awry when Rafi’s grandmother comes to visit, fully expecting to meet his new fiance and offer the pair her approval. Through a convoluted series of plot points, Rafi does reconnect with Miloni and, for apparently no other reason than she’s a nice person, Miloni agrees to go along with the charade. As the two are forced to spend more time together play-acting as a happy couple, they inevitably become closer and more fond of each other. But Batra insists on keeping us at such a distance from either of them that any hints of a happily-ever-after for these two is buried under boring, plodding scenes that don’t really get us anywhere at all. Siddiqui seems to be doing much of the heavy lifting between the two main characters, as Malhorta withers under the camera’s gaze.
Despite this, there’s a lot of depth to Batra’s film; in this way, it’s very much like its impressive predecessor. The whole affair is a love song to Mumbai, a bustling, vibrant city (I can say that, I’ve been there) not unlike New York or Paris or Tokyo, where people come from across the country (and the world) to find success and happiness. There’s a fairly obvious commentary on India’s enduring caste system, both spoken and unspoken; Rafi and Miloni are from widely different backgrounds, and even Rafi’s grandmother references his sun-darkened skin tone (a point of sensitivity there) as a sign of his hard work.
It’s next to impossible to catch lighting in a bottle twice, and Batra ultimately falls short of the feat with Photograph, a film lacking the wit, charm and bittersweet humanity of his earlier effort. As a perfectly approachable foray into world cinema, there are worse ways to spend a night at the cinema. But there are definitely better ones, too.