Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dhobi Ghat / Mumbai Diaries

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) (2010, India, Kiran Rao)

Often Indian films set in Mumbai start off with a voice-over narration which explains both the endless possibilities Mumbai offers to newcomers and also the perils of living in such a fast moving city. Mumbai demands such an introduction in a film for it is not a passive city but instead a very strong character in itself. Mumbai can be a friend that helps a film's character realize their dream or it can be the villain that leads to a character's downfall. Yet, most Indian films ignore Mumbai after the obligatory introduction. These films then iterate through a succession of quick cuts which rush through the city's famous landmarks while focussing on the character's plights. However, the city cannot be ignored because it influences the character's moods. The traffic, the seemingly endless days of rain all have an effect on a character's feelings yet often such moods do not make it onto the screen. Instead, we are shown characters that talk and behave as if their city has no bearing on their day to day routines.

In that regard, it is a joy to discover that Kiran Rao's debut feature Dhobi Ghat is able to capture some of the emotional resonance that Mumbai inspires. The film uses four characters to depict some of the struggles and joys that can take place in a vibrant and buzzing city like Mumbai. While there is only one native Mumbaiite in the quartet, all the characters observe the city through a unique perspective. Shai (Monica Dogra) is enchanted by the city and wants to capture its reality and beauty via her photography. Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) keeps a video journal of her day to day experiences while Arun (Aamir Khan) paints whatever Mumbai inspires in him. Munna (Prateik) experiences the city via two different jobs that enable him to see the city in both daytime and nighttime. Munna is the only character out of the four that experiences the city without any filters. Both his jobs require him to get his hands dirty so to speak, first by cleaning clothes by day in the Ghats and then by lurking in the shadows to rid the city of germ carrying rats by night.

There is a purpose for each character's existence as each character is etched out to form a realistic representation of people that live in Mumbai. Arun is a native of the city and is not bothered by the city's day to day hassles. He is also a loner and keeps his distance from others, easily isolating himself in his apartment while the city races around him. Munna has arrived in Mumbai to chase his dream of becoming an actor like thousands of others. He does not mind doing filthy jobs because the jobs are just a stepping stone to his dreams of becoming a Bollywood star. In between jobs, he finds time to work-out and get in shape because a modern day Bollywood hero is required to have a six-pack. Yasmin is a new migrant to the city via marriage and is both enchanted and puzzled by Mumbai while Shai is a foreign national with Indian heritage who is on a sabbatical in the city. It is never really spelled out but Shai's trip to Mumbai could both be an escape from her American life and a chance to discover her Indian roots.

In a sense these four characters represent four walls of a room and not surprisingly their lives are connected via a series of coincidences and incidents which occur in and around various Mumbai flats. The presence of such coincidences and chance encounters in a vast city like Mumbai may not seem realistic but the characters move around in a closed-off circle thereby increasing their odds of seeing each other often. Of course, the encounters are a springboard for exploring the emotional state of the characters. As a result, the script shrinks the vast and chaotic city down to the microscopic level of these four characters so that they can be observed in tight quarters. Each character has their own set of complex problems and Kiran Rao lets the actors brilliant expressions and body language form a guide to their inner feelings. Throughout the film, the four actors appear to be living out their parts as opposed to acting out scripted lines.

In terms of acting, one expects nothing less than perfection from Aamir Khan and he does not disappoint. However, his character does not grab the camera's full attention thereby allowing Monica Dogra, Prateik and Kriti to truly shine in their roles. Prateik makes an impressive debut and that was illustrated by the positive response he got during the film's premier at TIFF last year. However, the most memorable performances in the film come courtesy of the two female characters. Monica Dogra is magnificent in every frame and delivers every line of dialogue with utmost perfection while Kriti Malhotra steals the show with a soulful performance that conveys the innocence, excitement and tragedy of her character in a realistic manner. Kriti's character has the least screen time of all four principal actors but she makes each second count. Her character's voice, which is heard more than we see her on screen, forms a narrative guide to the city and ends up being the soul of the film. It is via Yasmin's camera that we get to see some of the famous Mumbai landmarks one expects on cinema such as Gateway of India, Elephanta Caves, Marine drive. It is also her character that talks about the endless rain that seems to take over Mumbai every year. Her character provides inspiration for Arun to see Mumbai with fresh and innocent eyes.

Overall, Dhobi Ghat is a beautiful and poetic tribute to the complex city that is Mumbai. In reality, a first time visitor cannot leave Mumbai with a neutral view. Either the visitor will be repelled by the city's extremes or fall in love with the city’s charms. What Dhobi Ghat does is present the city in a humble manner without focusing on either the beauty or ugliness too much. Kiran Rao focuses on characters whose lives are shaped by Mumbai thereby allowing us to experience some of the joys and struggles that Mumbai offers to these people.


Sam Juliano said...

"Overall, Dhobi Ghat is a beautiful and poetic tribute to the complex city that is Mumbai. In reality, a first time visitor cannot leave Mumbai with a neutral view. Either the visitor will be repelled by the city's extremes or fall in love with the city’s charms."

Indeed Sachin, this is what I am led to believe by prior reviews. You have furthered the literature so to speak. I want to see this one badly, as I was impressed by the trailer and as I say have read all the glowing reports. You've framed the film wonderfully with a descriptive account, that certainly brings this locale alive.

Beyond this I have a question for you. As I prepare (months ahead) for my poll of the 50 greatest musicals, I'd like to ask you if you would be able to suggest the best Bollywood musicals in your view. Many thanks.

Sachin said...

Thanks Sam. I am sure you will be find this movie is still playing somewhere in the NY area.

Sure I would be more than happy to help suggest some Bollywood films for your list, although things get tricky when considering only pure musicals. This is because there are plenty of Bollywood films which contain multiple songs but are not a pure musical such as Evita or Chicago. So if your poll is willing to consider films which are not pure musicals per se, then that could open the door for quite a number of worthy Bollywood films.

Sam Juliano said...

Sachin, I am trying to restrict the parameers to musicals, though the term could also be loosely defined. I am still pondering the rules I hope to employ. Many thanks.

I plan to see OF GODS AND MEN over the weekend, and a film by a Canadien filmmaker, I'm sure you know well, Xavier Dolan:

Sachin said...

Ah that's great you will get to see OF GODS AND MEN. I am very curious about that film.

Yes Xavier Dolan is an amazing filmmaker and still so young. I hope you enjoy his film but you also have to seek out his first film I KILLED MY MOTHER which is a brilliant film.

Thanks again.