Sundance 2019: Ritesh Batra's Lovely, Heartwarming Film 'Photograph'
by Alex Billington
January 31, 2019
Not everything is about falling in love, and being physical. Sometimes just spending time with someone can mean more than anything, and remind us we're not always alone. I adore Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra's films about the random connections that mean the most to us. His sweet, touching storytelling lets emotions build through the moments and interactions - not just dialogue or story beats. Photograph is Batra's latest film after making two English-language features (Our Souls at Night, The Sense of an Ending) which were his follow-up films to his breakout hit The Lunchbox (which I fell in love with at Telluride 2013). Batra goes back to his roots for this film, telling a story about a friendship between two quiet people in Mumbai, India.
Batra's Photograph is a film that will warm your heart. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Rafi, a humble street photographer snapping tourist photos at the Gateway of India in Mumbai, living in a tiny shack with friends. One day he takes a photo of Miloni, played by the wonderfully understated Sanya Malhotra, and notices he feels a connection with her. She is a quiet, introverted young woman who feels pressured by her family and doesn't enjoy much besides studying. He finds her and convinces her to pose as his fiancé to satisfy his grandma's wishes, and they begin to spend their days together. That's as far as this story takes us. This is a lighter film (there's not much to it and not very intimate) but still so warm. Other films it reminds me of as a look at the value of connection are Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, and Mia Hansen-Løve's Maya.
There's much to admire and appreciate about Batra's films, no matter your feelings on the story, especially this one. He is such a tender filmmaker, often deciding to skip over the moments where major conversations or decisions happen. Instead we get to see other more intimate, pensive moments that just feel warm when shown on screen through his lens. He captures the streets and sights and sounds of India in a way few other filmmakers can. One of the best shots in the film shows the characters interacting in the background while the camera points through the hands of another person making chapati at the stove. It's a stunning shot, simple but so perfectly executed. And this is just one of the many subtly beautiful shots found in the film, courtesy of cinematographers Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins. Batra's films really make me want to visit India.
We're so conditioned with cinema these days to expect more drama, or to expect more romance, and when Photograph spends two hours without going down that route it can be a bit frustrating. Or perhaps, not that satisfying. But that's the point, I think. It's not about that romance - or it doesn't always need to be. Such uncomplicated affection can mean a lot in today's overwhelming times where loneliness and disconnection are rampant. And this film captures that tiny bit of connection between two people that is so vital to them even though it's not tangible in any way. And watching that, watching them connect, is truly heartwarming. I did want to see their future play out, but Photograph is nonetheless a lovely look at the power of kindness.
Alex's Sundance 2019 Rating: 8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing