Friday, January 21, 2011

Dhobi Ghat 

Oh Mumbai!

Kiran Rao’s debut film Dhobi Ghat is like a guide to Mumbai, the way an outsider would see and romanticise the city.  It’s as if she has gone around with a checklist—and everything is ticked--  from the sea, the monsoon, trains, Elephanta Caves and Ganpati to Ramzan feasts in the by-lanes of old Mumbai.

In between admiring the city with wide-eyed adoration, she follows four people who are connected by the kind of coincidences, that happen in cinema more often than they do in life.  A triangle is formed  between a “loner” artist Arun (Aamir Khan), a rich banker Shai (Monica Dogra) on a sabbatical from New York, and a young dhobi-cum-rat-killer-cum-aspiring actor Munna (Prateik). The fourth character Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) is a Muslim woman, the former resident of the house Arun rents, who left behind a bunch of video tapes, meant as letters to her brother.

The device of the video letters is a bit of a contrivance, since it is more likely that she would hand write and post the letters, and if she was recording, she would at some point post the tapes.  Anyway, the tapes given Arun a kind of alternative life to the one he shuns—the high society soirees. It also allows for vistas of Mumbai that would not otherwise fit in.

Shai gets obsessed by Arun after a one-night stand, but also bonds with Munna, who is not just her guide to the underside of Mumbai, but also her connection to Arun, whose clothes he also washes.  Munna, who lives in a leaky hovel, is rather touchingly innocent as well as street smart.  He dreams of stardom, falls for Shai, while having a relationship of convenience with a rich female client.

Munna could be the spirit of Mumbai, a marvellous creation by Rao and wonderfully brought to life by Prateik (had he also worked on his Bihari accent, his performance would have been a perfect 10).  He is the true migrant, who has to struggle to belong.  Shai, Yasmin and Arun remain outsiders and passive observers,  never mind their desire to understand life in Mumbai from their own perspectives— Arun through his art, Shai through the still camera and Yasmin through the handicam.  It is as if Rao wanted to distance herself as well as plunge right into the heart of the city—the device works up to a point, then seems overused.

There are little touches of observation and humour (Munna scolding a liftman for staring at Shai), but also inexplicable bits like the still, staring old woman. The mood is overwhelmingly wistful, as if Rao were saying that heartbreak is the only way to go in Mumbai. Even with Aamir Khan sticking out with his confused what-to-do demeanor, and its self-conscious artiness, the film is worth a look for the charm of the other actors and the inexorable beauty-in-ugliness (shot with love by Tushar Kanti Ray), of the city.  What’s important is that Rao has captured Mumbai right at a time when it still has some character and sense of community—ten years down the line, there may be none left after the developers are through with it.


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