In all publicity and reviews of the film, you will see references to Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) being the debut of Kiran Rao as a director, and while technically true – this is the first feature film she has directed – it feels like a lie to call it a debut, because Ms. Rao has presented us with as rich and beautiful a gift as some gorgeous, intricate piece of jewelry that an older, experienced goldsmith would design.
If you consider another Mumbai-centric film that had everyone talking two years ago, namely, Slumdog Millionaire, this film is the polar opposite of that. Where Slumdog‘s camerawork careened around the city, speeding through narrow lanes and crowded spaces to vertiginous effect, Dhobi Ghat is far more chilled out as it flows into and around Mumbai, much as local friend would take you to wander about after a leisurely weekend brunch that had included a few glasses of wine. (Which is, happily, along the lines of how I first experienced south Bombay.)
The story revolves around a quartet of people from different backgrounds and strata of society who meet and interact as one can do in a large city where, at least on the surface, those disparities don’t seem to matter much. Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), the young, wide-eyed bride recently arrived from UP begins as our narrator and later develops into a kind of muse and companion to Arun (Aamir Khan), a brooding artist who prefers to be alone with his thoughts and his paintings, when he’s not staring intensely out at the city surging around him. Arun has taken up the apartment where Yasmin and her husband previously lived, and he comes to know her by way of some videotaped letters to her brother that were left behind in an almirah, along with a few pieces of silver jewelry. Soon Arun is being led into Yasmin’s life, which, like his own, is tinged with sadness.
At the same time, while forced to attend the opening of the latest exhibition of his paintings, Arun gets talking to Shai (Monica Dogra), a young NRI taking a sabbatical from her job with an investment bank in the States. They spend a night together, but part badly the next morning when Arun is seized with regret and pushes Shai away. It’s at this point that Munna (Prateik Babbar) appears. The young and handsome dhobi, who arrived from Bihar when he was a child, is soon taken with the pretty and easygoing Shai, who is using her time in Mumbai to explore (by way of photography) people carrying out various jobs around the city. She and Munna strike a deal that he will take her to the dhobi ghat if, in turn, she will take pictures of him that he can use as a portfolio in his attempt to break into Hindi movies.
What follows then are a series of steps and missteps between Arun, Shai and Munna as they crisscross paths with each other multiple times throughout the film, sometimes without even realizing it. The issues of class and money appear in seemingly small moments (the maid at Shai’s house sullenly serving tea to Munna in an old glass while Shai merits a china teacup, Shai’s well-to-do friends kidding her relentlessly about hanging out with her dhobi and wondering whatever it is they find to talk about) and they disappear in others (Shai and Munna having a snack of pau bhaji at a restaurant, or one evening alone together at Shai’s family home, a sea-facing apartment with a sprawling terrace, where they have a drink after Shai has shown Munna how she develops the photographs). But those moments, the ones where their jobs and families and backgrounds don’t matter, are short-lived, as the reality of the gulf between sidles up next to them again and again, like the family car and driver that trails behind them during so many of their sojourns.
In a movie starring the huge phenomenon that is Aamir Khan, the risk is ever-present that he will absorb all the light and the attention from the three newcomers who are his co-stars. I was not able to dissect how they managed it, but between Kiran Rao and her husband, and perhaps the newness of the other three, the exact opposite was the case. I was so drawn in to knowing where Yasmin had gone now that she no longer lived in Arun’s apartment, and wondering if Shai would return Munna’s feelings and if they’d be able to make a go of it, that Arun was the one I least wondered about how he would fare. Credit should be given to Aamir Khan for being a big enough person to graciously cede the spotlight to his fellow actors.
And what discoveries all three of this ensemble have been! I don’t know how much of the credit is due to the strength of each as an actor in their own rights, and how much is due to Kiran Rao as a director, but rarely have I seen three newbies who have not appeared like debutantes as they played their parts.
Kriti Malhotra brings a luminous openness to her portrayal of the defeated Yasmin, as she catches on to the realities of her circumstances as an isolated housewife surrounded by Mumbai’s millions of residents. Because her role demands she talk directly to the camera as she records her video diary, like Arun, we too start to feel that we are taken into her confidence.
As Shai, Monica Dogra (also a singer and one half of the duo Shaair and Func) carries herself with the confidence and distance that the role of an affluent and successful young woman would require, but she is also able to easily swap emotions as her character goes from resignation one minute to shame or confusion the next.
In his portrayal of Munna, Prateik is guileless and engaging and pure, seemingly unaware of his own good looks, even when he removes his shirt for Shai to photograph him, as he innocently mimics the poses of the Salman Khan posters hanging above his bed at home.
You don’t need to be clairvoyant to predict this role will send Prateik Babbar hurtling into the filmi ionosphere where he will become a sought-after young actor and heartthrob. While the so very well deserved recognition gladdens me at one level, the inevitable overexposure also gives me pause, because I think it will be near impossible for him to make as good an impression in his next cinematic outing as he has done in Dhobi Ghat.
The same goes for Kriti and Monica: I just hope that whatever they are offered and accept next allows both of them to shine as they did in this film.
The choice of legendary Argentine music composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, might seem counterintuitive for a film that is so solidly Indian (urban Indian, but still), and yet, as it turns out, his compositions using guitar as well as Indian instruments, serve to subtly, yet unforgettably, reinforce the emotions of the story. I could listen to the soundtrack over and over and not tire of it.
The sum total of all Dhobi Ghat’s parts belie Kiran Rao’s maiden voyage as a director. The dialogues, on the whole, are natural and sound like things you’ve heard from people you’ve met. The city, as she has presented it to us, is at times glorious and expansive, and at others somber and indifferent. The interiors, from Munna’s leaky lean-to at the edge of the railway tracks to the peeling window frames of the apartment that Yasmin and Arun have shared don’t feel like movie sets. They’ve been dressed in such a skillful way that they feel like real homes that real people would inhabit.
See it or skip it: See it, more than once! The film is beautiful on so many levels (sensorial and emotional), from the wide shots of Bombay’s landscape and the loving close-ups of its citizens in Shai’s photographs, to the humanity and feelings of the four people whose lives we enter, to letting us virtually experience the tactile pleasure of painting as we watch Arun spackle and spray and smooth the colors with his hands, and the indelible and often plaintive melodies of Santaolalla’s music that linger in our ears and heads long after the credits have rolled.