Patient viewers who enjoy deeply felt films that take their sweet (in a good way) time to tell a small, human and relatable story should find writer-director Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set romance “Photograph” a lovely, charming and gently transporting journey.
The movie’s high-concept setup — a love-challenged guy tries to pass off a pretty stranger as his fiancée to resuscitate his ailing and meddling old grandma — may evoke some erstwhile studio star-vehicle (Sandra Bullock, come on down.). But Batra, who made his feature debut with 2013’s acclaimed, not dissimilar “The Lunchbox,” does anything but lean into his story’s potential rom-com high jinks.
In fact, some may reflexively wish he’d added a bit more pop and fizz to the proceedings. But it’s just this slightly elliptical, understated approach that makes Batra’s film such a tender and winning tonic. “Lunchbox” costar Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Rafi, a transplant from a poor village in northern India. In an attempt to repay an old family debt, Rafi works doggedly as a street photographer at Mumbai’s famed waterfront landmark and busy tourist attraction, Gateway of India. One day, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a shy, middle-class accounting student, wanders by and reluctantly agrees to have her picture taken. But she disappears without paying, and all that’s left is a winsome snapshot and a fleeting connection between two lonely souls.
That is, until Rafi learns that his beloved grandmother, Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar), who valiantly raised him and his sisters after their parents’ apparent death, has stopped taking her medicine — grapevine news everyone in Rafi’s local circle humorously seems to get wind of simultaneously — in a last-ditch attempt (OK, blackmail effort) to force her long-single grandson to finally find a wife.
Whether it’s a bluff or the real thing isn’t something Rafi wants to chance, so he sends Dadi the photo of Miloni with a concocted story about her persona and their “romance.” But when Grandma announces a trip to Mumbai to meet Rafi’s “intended,” the tale kicks into motion as he tries to track down Miloni and involve her in his scheme.
Like much else here, this plot wheel turns with unfussy grace and purposeful bits of vagueness — no noisy detective work or desperate, let’s-put-on-a-show pleading in Batra’s universe — as Rafi and Miloni tentatively unite to satisfy the shrewd Dadi.
(It’s unclear exactly why Miloni agrees to help, but we’re glad she does; perhaps the promise of adventure is enough for her.)
And, oh, what a memorable force of nature Dadi turns out to be. Wise, wizened, deceptively hearty and shamelessly frank (and blessed with such wickedly good lines as “Why should I be a bone in your kebab?”), she puts Rafi and Miloni in her eagle-eyed sights and the pair modestly convince her of their bond.
From there, however, this introspective tale becomes less about the grandma gambit and more about the gingerly ways in which our two leads inch their way closer to each other. When Rafi and Miloni do finally touch hands, it feels like the world’s — or at least their world’s — greatest accomplishment.
The film, which deftly touches upon such big-picture themes as class, religion, tradition, family and happiness, features a wealth of delicately captivating moments and observations beyond the Rafi-Miloni dynamic. These involve Miloni’s sensitive relationship with her family’s humble maid (Geetanjali Kulkarni), Rafi’s interplay with his buoyant friends and roommates (as well as their kindness and respect toward Dadi) and Rafi’s heartfelt pursuit of the defunct brand of cola Miloni loved as a child.
Much may be debated about the film’s subtle ending, one that’s maybe best interpreted by reconsidering the few scenes that immediately precede it. The touchingly authentic final conversation between Rafi and a revealing Dadi (“I have a mother’s heart”) is a standout, as is Jaffar’s performance.
Batra, who last directed 2017’s Jane Fonda-Robert Redford drama “Our Souls at Night” (another slow-burn romance), captures the bustling, workaday sides of Mumbai life with vigor and passion while also treating us to several leafier, more urbane views of the city. Kudos to cinematographers Timothy Gillis and Ben Kutchins for the film’s many burnished, strikingly composed shots. It’s a beautiful, resonant film.
In Hindi, Gujarati and English with English subtitles
Rated: PG-13, for some thematic material
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: Starts May 17, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles