Time has come to a standstill at the quaint café where middle-aged widower Saajan Fernandes, essayed by Irrfan Khan, sits at a table near the exit, his eyes fixed on a woman at another table, frantically searching for him. The woman Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is stuck in a loveless marriage. She chugs glasses of water, eyes glued to the entrance, looking for the stranger she daily sends letters to in a lunchbox, unaware that Saajan is the man.
By now, that scene of Ritesh Batra’s 2013 gem, The Lunchbox, has come to define quiet heartbreak. Ila and Saajan spend the whole film without actually meeting each other. Sadness rests heavy on every little second of the frame, as longing and love find expression through an unusual plot pusher — the lunchbox.
Batra’s cinema has so far thrived on setting up longing as a bedrock of romance, and one is transported to the cafe scene of The Lunchbox while watching his latest, Photograph. Like The Lunchbox, Photograph follows two strangers — whose romance would never have blossomed — but for an unlikely plot device.
If a lunchbox became key to triggering off a relationship between strangers who never meet in Batra’s first Hindi feature, his new film makes a photograph the tool for an unusual romance.
Like The Lunchbox and Batra’s English 2017 film Our Souls At Night, Photograph primarily concerns itself with examining how the simple desire to long — for attention, company, affection, or even to be understood — consumes every one of us.
In Photograph, Rafi, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is a lower-class street photographer who works at Gateway of India. He convinces Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a meek upper-class CA topper, to let him photograph her. He promises to capture “the wind in her hair” and the “light on her face”. It’s not just the promise that entices her, it’s the way he sees her. For, Miloni’s robotic existence has stripped her of the ability to recognise herself.
Photograph leads up to a momentous moment midway when Miloni tenderly reaches out for Rafi’s hand inside a cab. In that fleeting moment, she reveals — like Saajan did in the cafe — just how much she longs for someone to make her loneliness less unbearable.
In the real world, Miloni and Rafi would never get the luxury of a happily-ever-after, which is why witnessing them longing to get away from their isolated existences feels so rewarding.