Review – Dhobi Ghat

It is with considerable apprehension that I stepped into the theatre to watch Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries). Here was another film which had the great Indian city as its inspiration, backdrop, and going by Kiran Rao’s own admission, even an important character in the movie. For a subject that has been milked dry from every conceivable perspective many times over, what can possibly be said about Mumbai that hasn’t been said before?

I need not have worried. Here are no perfunctory shots of the towering CST, the glittering Queen’s necklace, or Haji Ali silhouetted against the sunset. There are no simplistic portrayals of the superficiality glitzy metropolis; it does not revel in the squalor of the slums; neither is it singularly about the other favourite Mumbai cliché, the underworld. True, all of these and more find place in the director’s moving tribute to the city, but what primarily makes up Kiran Rao’s Mumbai is its characters: The upscale artist (Arun) who moves into the grimy downmarket neighbourhood in search of inspiration while a young dhobi (Munna) does crunches in his run-down shack in Dhobi Ghat hoping to make it big as a film star someday; the well-to-do NRI (Shai), on a  self-proclaimed sabbatical from a highly-paid corporate job, who wants to experience the underbelly of the city through her lens, while a middle-class housewife (Yasmeen) caught in a new city and a new relationship tries to make sense of both while videotaping the city for her brother.

The story, if it can be called so, is how these far-flung characters cross paths and get their lives intertwined in the teeming city of Mumbai, resulting in inspiration for one, obsession for another and heartbreak for yet another. Shai (played by Monica Dogra) falls for eccentric painter Arun after a one-night stand, while Arun becomes obsessed with the video letters a previous homeowner, Yasmeen, (Kriti Malhotra) recorded for her brother back home. Munna (Prateik Babbar) the dhobi, who first helps Shai find Arun, finds himself falling for the unassumingly egalitarian NRI in course of acting as her tourist guide as she shoots dhobis, labourers and night rat killers for her paper. For a self-styled art-house production, this film is surprisingly rich in circumstances that could be construed as melodramatic: poor boy falls for rich girl, privileged girl obsesses over an unattainable object of desire, a housewife suffocating within a claustrophobic marriage…However, Rao deftly sidesteps even the slightest hint of melodrama, instead painting a picture of Mumbai that is fragile, personal and achingly real. She connects the dots between the characters with delicate strokes, ably assisted by Tushar Kanti Ray’s fluid camera work and the haunting background score by Gustav Santaollala, and we are left with a long string of beautiful cinematic moments that linger in your mind long after the credits have rolled.

The newcomer actors are spot on: Monica Dogra makes a natural transition into the character of the wealthy NRI, and Kriti Malhotra convincingly essays the role of the excited housewife who slowly loses her zest for life. However, the star of the show is Prateik Babbar who invests such sincerity into his role that we feel all the complexities of his life as if it were our own: we instinctively smile when he leans out of the bus in his first flush of love, we sense his discomfort when he is invited to sit down at Shai’s high-rise apartment and feel his heart break when he chances upon his beloved at the house of the eccentric painter. If there is a weak link in the acting, it surprisingly comes from Amir Khan, who, much like his character flits around uncomfortably at his own exhibition at the beginning of the movie, seems out-of-place in this minimalist set-up. His furrowed eyebrows and snappy dialogues somehow seem forced, and he slips into his element only towards the later part of the movie, when given a chance to “act” rather than live the character on screen.

But all said and done, this movie is not for everybody. If you go in expecting “a different movie from Amir Khan” (like Lagaan or 3 Idiots) or just two hours of wholesome entertainment, chances are that you’ll walk out of the theatre bewildered and disappointed. But for once, is you are willing to let go if the “why” and “how” and “what for”, and take in Kiran Rao’s heartfelt ode to the city of dreams, get yourself a ticket, sit back, relax and get prepared to be wowed.

Jyothi Varma

Twenty something blogger, whose passions include books, photography, cinema, and writing about all of the above! 🙂

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