Writer-director Ritesh Batra both employs and upends the clichés of romantic comedy in this low-key, open-ended charmer. Though set in Mumbai and reflecting the realities of Indian culture, its appeal will easily cross national boundaries.
The Polaroid of the title is one taken by Rafi (the quietly nuanced Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a street photographer who sells instantly-made stills to passersby on the street. It’s of Miloni (Sanya Malhotra, who nicely conveys her character’s walking-on-eggshells persona), the daughter of traditional parents who’s studying to become an accountant. She’s sad over the life her family is planning for her—it involves arranging a marriage with a pre-selected groom, of course—and is so taken with Rafi’s picture that she walks off with it, entranced, without paying him.
Rafi is equally obsessed, seeing something very special in Miloni. And since his beloved grandmother Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar), who raised and protected him, has been pressuring him to get married (as has virtually everybody in his vicinity, most notably the workers he shares a dismal flat with), he decides to send her the photo, saying the girl is his fiancée. Of course, that leads to Dadi’s instantly planning a trip from their home village to Mumbai to meet her.
Rafi must now locate Miloni and persuade her to impersonate his intended. He does, and she agrees, and the film, which until now has been subdued and serene, seems poised to lurch into full farcical mode.
It doesn’t, remaining quiet and contemplative about the possibility of such an unlikely match ever working out. When the two go off to a movie at one point, Miloni jumps when something touches her foot, and Rafi calms her by saying that it’s just a rat scurrying about on the floor of the theatre he’s accustomed to attending. And when, finally, he wants to do something really special for her, he tracks down a bottle of the cola she remembers loving as a child, though the company stopped making it years ago and the formula passed into the hands of a man who continues to brew it for his wife, another aficionado.
Miloni, meanwhile, goes along with her parents’ efforts to introduce her to likely suitors, though they all wonder about whether the one they consider most likely should be unlisted because he might put back on the weight he’s rumored to have lost. And while her parents treat the family maid with coolness, Miloni imagines the woman’s village as vaguely paradisiacal, at which the servant simply smiles; but she also agrees to keep the girl’s secret when she sees her and Rafi together with Dadi.
The doting but astute and calculating grandmother could easily have been portrayed as a smothering stereotype, but here again Batra avoids the expected. As played by the delightful Jaffar, Dadi is certainly manipulative, but her say-what-she-thinks shrewdness isn’t overplayed; she’s an engaging figure, not an irritating one, and you understand why Rafi is so determined to meet the expectations she has for him, given the many sacrifices she made during his childhood.
One might find it more difficult to understand Miloni’s motives. She aches with dissatisfaction at what’s planned for her by others, but at the same time she’s seemingly incapable of taking a stand to change things. The photograph represents what she describes as a different version of herself, one that’s happier and more beautiful, but whether her relationship with Rafi can bring about a transformation to that vision is a point that, in the end, the film presents as only a possibility—rather a slim one according to the “rules” of society, if not of the cinematic genre in which Batra is working.
As shot by Ben Kutchins, Photograph” captures the teeming streets of Mumbai, and in off-handed digressions the variety of life on them (a vignette in which Rafi gets into a disagreement with an overly friendly, loquacious taxi driver is a perfect example). And yet the film feels totally unrushed, the result of both Batra’s direction and John F. Lyon’s editing. Peter Raeburn’s music sometimes gets a mite syrupy, but that’s a relatively minor blemish.
To appreciate this modest, gentle film, one need only think of what the story would have become if situated in New York with a trio of Hollywood stars in the leads. That should be enough to banish too much criticism of “Photograph.”