Unlike his The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra's Photograph fails to engross us, feels Ritwik Sharma.
IMAGE: Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra in Photograph.
In a memorable scene, which says much even without dialogue, the shy male protagonist in Ritesh Batra's new movie, Photograph, bends forward twice to say something to the woman in the bus seat in front of him.
He is smitten by her, but the words just won't spill out of his mouth.
A little later, the woman shifts to her left as a seat is emptied and looks back at him expectantly.
He then gets up from his seat and sits next to her.
The man is a small-time photographer called Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who takes photos of people by the Gateway of India.
The woman, Miloni Shah played by Sanya Malhotra, is a student topper taking coaching classes to be a chartered accountant.
The scene is filled with the promise and anticipation of an improbable relationship between the two, but till the very end, the movie leaves it to the viewer to read the minds of the taciturn leads.
IMAGE: Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra in Photograph
Batra reprises some of the key ingredients from his brilliant debut feature, The Lunchbox (2013) -- love communicated via objects, individuals seeking an escape from the rut of family and livelihood, and an intimate backdrop of Mumbai.
If epistolary messages established an unusual romance in The Lunchbox, the snapshot is the starting point in Photograph.
Rafi asks Miloni, whose photograph he had taken, to pose as his girlfriend before his visiting grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar), who pressures to find him a match.
Both the characters are tied to their circumstances.
Rafi has a loan to pay off and does the minimum to stave off his grandmother for the time being, while Miloni is a meritorious student who had a childhood dream of becoming an actor. She, too, agrees to her parents and meets a prospective NRI groom, but tells him that her wish is to live in a village.
Siddiqui is on familiar ground as a struggling, lower-income man living among fellow migrants in cramped tenements, not dissimilar to the struggling but crafty accountant he played in The Lunchbox.
His meek mannerisms and feeble retorts, such as to a taxi driver's taunts on seeing him with a fair-skinned woman, are signature Siddiqui.
IMAGE: Sanya Malhotra in Photograph.
Malhotra, however, is a complete surprise in her soft-spoken role, a contrast from the feisty characters she played in Dangal (2016) and Pataakha (2018).
The casting of the supporting actors, too, deserves appreciation.
Jaffar, especially, as the nagging elderly is superb.
In the midst of the quiet pair, lesser characters such as hers end up with the wittiest lines in this comedy-drama.
Vijay Raaz appears late in the movie as the ghost of a man, who had committed suicide in Rafi's room. It is a guest role that is redundant and unable to tap Raaz's talent.
It is also an indication of a movie that meanders, even as the viewer keeps guessing whether or not the two protagonists will fall in love.
IMAGE: Irrfan in The Lunchbox.
Despite a clever ploy, unlike The Lunchbox, Photograph fails to engross us.
One cannot fault the silence of the actors or greater thrust on body language than words.
It is a welcome, growing idiom as mainstream cinema tends to veer increasingly towards realism with less words and action than is the norm (think October, a film which similarly underplayed romance).
With Photograph, Batra is unable to recreate the magic of The Lunchbox, where despite an open-ended conclusion one could relate to or empathise with the characters, and where even the tiffin carrier felt like a member of the cast.
Photograph does reaffirm the ability of Batra, also the writer and co-producer, to capture the quotidian in all its delicious details. But they do not stitch together a narrative that conveys enough.