Soon after 2013's The Lunchbox became an international hit, its Indian writer-director Ritesh Batra relocated to the UK to make the underwhelming Julian Barnes adaptation The Sense of an Ending. Even as you were watching it, that project felt like a wrong turn, yet Batra now returns home, and to first principles, with Photograph, an affecting, quietly naturalistic love story played out on bustling Mumbai streets. Easy to see why Batra appealed to Western producers. In many ways, he's an old romantic, striving to find new ways of bringing his characters together: for the dabbawallas of The Lunchbox, Photograph swaps in a chance meeting between two rueful souls operating on a lowish rung of the socioeconomic ladder. The buttoned down Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) earns his living photographing tourists massing around the Gateway to India; between shifts, he wires money home to a grandmother who frets he may have missed his chance to settle down. (The absence of parents serves to isolate him even further.) One afternoon, however, he snaps a sad, distracted accountancy student, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), and something other than the shutter clicks - although it does so softly, gently, without those heaving clunks of plotting that set Western lovers in place. What develops is a tale of two homebodies whose only desire is a slight adjustment to their circumstances - and who seem to know, deep down, that even this won't do much to change the way the big old world around them turns.
This latter point may be key to why Batra felt the need to beat some kind of retreat. His films to date strongly hint that he may be too restrained, too ambivalent, to be the new Richard Curtis the industry wanted him to be after falling so hard for The Lunchbox. (One major problem with The Sense of an Ending was that it wasn't remotely romantic: it was a mismatch of filmmaker and material, a squandering.) Here, as there, Batra's characters are older, weighed down with obligation, and recessive in a dozen other ways; they seem too bruised to swoon. The Lunchbox's lovers had other people to do the toing and froing for them; the central relationship in the new film similarly takes a while to come into focus. Certainly, there is a connection when first this pair cross paths, born of the novelty that another human being might be interested in (and may be good for) them, yet Rafi and Miloni keep missing one another when they go looking to reconnect. Even when they discover they share a bus route, there's no wild eruption of passion, and Batra elides the details of a crucial conversation that leads to Miloni posing as Rafi's girlfriend in order to reassure his jittery gran. (Presumably asking her out for real would be too much.) This, then, is another of Indian cinema's recent reevaluations of marriage, though Batra waves away any possibility of farce to cultivate something so naturalistic it seems more readily Japanese. The movie Photograph most reminded me of was 2004's peerlessly minor-key Tony Takitani, though it's also just possible Batra saw Brief Encounter at an early stage of his development, and resolved that less is always, always more.
You need truly skilled performers to pull this off - walking seismographs, really, capable of registering the flickers of emotion and gradual tectonic shifts underpinning such narratives. Batra, thankfully, has them: his leads keep us wondering, dreaming, interested. You wouldn't perhaps know it from this deeply internalised performance, but Siddiqui is something close to a star in his homeland, feted for his Daniel Day-Lewis-like ability to disappear into a role, and never look the same way twice. Set Rafi against the grasping, steely-eyed criminal mastermind Siddiqui has lately been playing on Netflix India's Sacred Games, and Photograph begins to seem more poignant yet: the story of a man who's never once succeeded in getting what he wants. Against him, the fresh-faced Malhotra does a lot with lowered eyes and a baleful countenance: again, here is someone possibly too gentle and quiet to seize the opportunities of this life, and is all the more heartbreaking for that. They're perfectly matched, in a way, yet we sense getting them to a happy ending won't be easy, since nothing else in these lives has been. Still, as Batra insists, there's hope. This filmmaker may just be one of those modest creatives content to whittle away on cinematic equivalents of the short story, rather than sock over those thumping auteurist statements the international entertainment business generally prefers to deal in: I ended my review of The Lunchbox with an offhand reference to Tagore, a comparison Photograph strengthens, I think. There can be no doubt he's getting increasingly good at telling these kind of tales, though: Photograph is nuanced, atmospheric and supremely well-characterised, full of people and especially places - an elaborately decorated taxi, a rat-infested cinema, a cafe in the rain - that really do imprint themselves upon the memory.
Photograph is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.