In 2013, the Mumbai-based writer-director Ritesh Batra made his feature debut with “The Lunchbox,” a sweet tonic of a romantic drama about an aging loner and an unhappily married woman who emotionally connect via notes in a misdelivered noonday meal. Two movies later, Batra has returned to his home country with “Photograph,” another tale of timid souls united by a sweet movie gimmick.
Has the magic returned, too? Not as one might hope. After a promising start and despite many small, satisfying moments, “Photograph” stalls out, a case of minimalist storytelling that sometimes mistakes the inert for the artful. Can a movie be too discreet? When a viewer feels mostly frustration by the end, yes.
As with “The Lunchbox,” “Photograph” doubles as a class-conscious portrait of Mumbai in transition. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a shy young woman whose parents are pushing her toward an accounting career and a suitable boy. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) makes a living taking tourist photos at the Gateway of India and lives with a gaggle of other street merchants in a crowded attic apartment.
The two have nothing in common except paths that cross when Rafi urges Miloni to pause for a photograph with a bit of improvised poetry that stops her in her tracks. The moment passes and, later, pestered by a village grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) who demands to know when he’ll marry, Rafi sends the old lady the photo of Miloni and says she’s his girlfriend. Whereupon the grandmother announces she’s coming to the city to meet the girl.
If this were a Hollywood rom-com, mistaken identities and pratfalls would ensue. If this were Bollywood, there would be singing and dancing around trees and lots of romantic complications. In “Photograph,” Batra tells the story with an allusiveness that borders on the perverse. Rafi locates Miloni and works up the nerve to approach her, but we never see that first conversation; the next we know, Miloni is posing as his girlfriend and being won over by the persnickety grandmother.
So it goes throughout “Photograph”: The basic connective tissue of plot is excised, leaving scenes of two quiet souls warming to each other at a methodical pace that first charms, then wears. Rafi at least has his noisy, affectionate roommates to react against and a bustling street community that at one point includes a helpful ghost. But Miloni is so quiet, and the role so intentionally underwritten, that the character threatens to evaporate off the screen.
The leads do have presence, and some of the best scenes in “Photograph” show how people out of joint with the larger world might find silent solace in each other. Batra gives us Mumbai as a collision of classes and castes in which the most unlikely couples might be pushed together in the scrum. “Photograph” might even be intended as an allegory for a city and a country crashing into a new century, with old ways shaken loose and new connections made.
The ending is unusual, as well, with Batra looping back in time for an emotional climax instead of building to it chronologically, as a proper rom-com would. But this is an improper rom-com in its understated fashion, and when Rafi tells Miloni he knows just how the film they’re watching in a movie theater will end, he could be speaking about the one he’s in, too, and why not mess around with it? There’s a good deal of heart, art, sympathy, and substance here, which is why’s it’s all the more frustrating that “Photograph” fails to develop.
Written and directed by Ritesh Batra. Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 110 minutes. PG-13 (some thematic material). In Hindi and English, with subtitles.