A fascinating insight into the city Mumbai, told through four interconnecting lives…
It seems like every year at the London Film Festival there are more and more films from the Indian continent, few of which have any resemblance to the Bollywood extravaganzas for which the country is best known. The latest example is Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries), an assured directorial debut from Kiran Rao.
Shai (Monica Dogra) is a privileged daughter of a rich banker, taking a sabbatical from her work in America to return to India and submit some papers on the effect of India’s growth on local business, which also gives her a chance to follow her hobby of photography. After a chance meeting with an enigmatic painter Arun (played by Aamir Khan, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, Rang De Basanti, Like Stars on Earth) at a show of his work, she quickly becomes infatuated with him, despite his apparent lack of interest.
In some ways as advantaged as Shai, both get the chance experience the city through another’s, less fortunate lives. For Shai, that comes with meeting Munna (Prateik Babbar, Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na), a Dhobi – a caste famed in Mumbai for specialising in doing the cities linen – with whom she becomes friends with and soon falls for her as much as she has for Arun.
Arun in turn finds a series of DV cassettes left by his apartment’s previous owner, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) – recently moved there with her new husband, the cassettes intended for her brother show her finding her way round the city, and her mounting despair as she discovers her husband is cheating on her. He becomes increasingly embroiled in her day-to-day view of the world.
On the surface an unrequited love story, Kiran Rao first feature as director is far more of a bittersweet love letter to the city of Mumbai itself. Indeed, as the director herself admitted in a Q & A after the screening, a city than can be as frustrating as it is invigorating. Thankfully she avoids a glitzy Hollywood (or, dare I say it, even Bollywood) style happy ending that brings the characters together in the final reel, instead leaving us with a positive but unresolved conclusion.
As Rao points out, such considerations as class are easily ignored in Western movies, as opposed to India where caste is something different again from class, and far more difficult to break out of. (In fact, such fairytales are very much the norm in Hollywood as romantic premises, from Pretty Woman to Maid In Manhattan. And yes, it is easier to break away from class, but never as simplistic as shown in those films.)
Rao instead uses this as a platform to meditate on, she doesn’t patronise those less fortunate nor criticise those more wealthy. A study of city swiftly growing and changing, it’s as much about building bridges with between the middle classes and the poor, as well as with the history and heritage of the city. In this sense it echoes some of the themes in Firaaq, an impressive film screened at the London Film Festival a couple of years ago. Of course, it’s within that increasing middle class that Dhobi Ghat looks to find its audience.
As Arun find out about Yasmin through her video diaries, it recalls Failan – a still relatively obscure (and unreleased in the UK) Korean film despite starring Choi Min-sik of Old Boy fame. In that film, Choi plays a third-rate yakuza who only finds out, and falls in love with, his Chinese bride Cecilia Cheung after her death from letters she’s left behind. (And it’s surprisingly gritty and unmelodramatic, even if it was a less fantastical version of Il Mare – which went on to be remade as The Lake House.)
In the Q & A, Rao revealed she’d never intended her husband Aamir Khan (one of India’s biggest stars!) to be involved. It was only after she ran into trouble casting the role that she let him read for her, and won her over. Prateik, a young actor still finding his way, makes an impressive turn as Munna. The real star, however, is Kriti Malhotra – actually a stylist by trade, she gives a heartrending performance in her debut acting role as the poignant Yasmin.
Underpinned by an evocative score by Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel, The Motorcycle Diaries, Amores Perros), Dhobi Ghat is an intelligent, engaging film that gives a truthful, warts and glorious all depiction of Mumbai.