5 stars out of 5 (Outstanding)
Director : Kiran Rao
Hindi (English subtitles available), 2010
Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) is a beautiful, mature debut by director Kiran Rao. It charts the story of four people whose diverse lives and background reflect the cultural eclecticism of Mumbai. Throughout the story, we are taken along by the persuasive, untrammelled story-telling by Rao, but only by the time of the end-credits does one fully realize the smooth control and finesse with which this first-time young helmer has guided this syncytium of stories through to a satisfying denouement. Dhobi Ghat has that delicate touch - its emotional fabric is embroidered by a softly sensual feel which is often the signature of an assured feminine artiste.
The stage is Mumbai - a vast mostly ugly jungle of buildings (with a national park having leopards within city limits !) - teeming with the throngs and surges of its denizens - their lives rendered a little more complex by the simple fact that they inhabit a bigger matrix of interpersonal encounters. The featured players here are 1) Munna - a young man hoping to make it from the slums to tinseltown , 2) Yasmin - a young woman from the provinces who films her "big city" experiences and hopes to settle well into her new married life, 3) Shai - another young woman (NY-bred) who is in Bombay on "sabbatical" to garner a picture collection of the city’s "small businesses" and 4) Arun - a painter of modern art (an introspective man probably in his late thirties) whose personal life is riven by commitment-phobia to his partners.
Rao narrates these interweaving stories with gentle nuance, with an eye for personal sentiment and minor cadences that create the larger music. In keeping with a post-1990s trend made hugely popular by the game-changer that was ’Pulp Fiction’, the various story strands here have a hyperlink, but thankfully this interlinking is not milked for undesirable coincidences and contrivances. Yasmin is accidentally "discovered" by another protagonist, while in the triangle involving the other three, Shai bonds with both but emotionally invests more in the sophisticated recluse Arun.
Performance-wise, what first occurs to mind is the one-two nascent punch of uber-class performances by Monica Dogra and Prateik. Monica is not conventionally beautiful, but both by her charming unaffected turn and a certain polymorphic attractiveness, she succeeds in conveying the essence of her character.Her speech clearly reveals her American origin (as opposed to the weird, faked accents the Industry has often given to "Goras"), so does her body language. She comes from a very rich family and is well-salaried by her own dint, but doesn’t treat Munna with the condescension that some others do. Initially not quite treating him as an equal, she later warms up to him and is comfortable,even complacent when she is alone with him. Perhaps she subconsciously cuts off any kindling of passion towards him, and her penultimate scene with Munna is particularly interesting for the way it reveals the knowing restrained emotional dynamic between them. Dogra’s emoting in the very last scene in the taxi is perfect - something that novices dream about.
Prateik amply manifests his rich acting pedigree (his mother is Smitha Patil and father-Raj Babbar) - one sees in the film not a star son but a hard-working young man from the slums who plans to make a rags-to-riches transition as a film star. Munna is never shown having a care-free laugh- his handsome face is mostly care-worn. He shields Shai from the crowds and the gaze of the "lesser" folk (much to her amusement), realizes that that he cannot hope to romance her but wants to show her his best side. Munna’s no saint but never professes to being so. Even in the seemingly simple last scene of the film, his acting cops, cut to a subtle precise grain, are evident. He has understood method acting and implemented it very early in his career.
Kriti Mlahotra so organically inhabits her role as Yasmin, with natural and perceptive shades all communicated in dulcet Urdu, that I conveniently presumed that the actual actress behind the performance was also from an Islamic background. What is possibly suggested of her fate in the end, may not sit well with feminists, but one can argue that we cannot be fully sure of what happens to Yasmin in the end. Rounding up this fine quartet is another convincing portrayal by Aamir Khan. Some observers felt that Aamir did not sufficiently emote here, but I disagree. His character Arun is an introvert who has trouble making relationships "work"- nevermind that he understands and stylishly constructs the emotions of the abstract world of modern art. Aamir does a fine job of coveying the turmoil, hesitation and lack of clarity in Arun’s personal life - contrast this with Aamir’s uber-confident character in Dil Chahtha Hai (Aamir Khan’s inclusion was not as per Rao’s original choice, but his fine turn here is far from ,say, the incongruity of a forced song-dance sequence).
Dhobi Ghat is not interested in being strongly plot-driven - many stretches of it involve creation and immersion in mood- which is admirably done by the snipping and arranging by Nishant Radhakrishnan. For those who call this "art cinema", I suggest a watching of "Chokher Bali" or for that matter "Hiroshima Mon Amour" to get a notion of what an "art film" actually is and entails. Pic’s music has been crafted by Gustavo Santaolla, the Argentinian composer who is especially talented in stringed-instrument musicand whose memorable score for great films can be noted in 'Brokeback Mountain' and 'Babel'. The background score here is spare,subtle and nuanced. The bracingly beautiful guitar score can be heard prominently in the movie’s trailers and a short while into the end-credits, rather than in the movie’s body per se; and Santaolalla also recruits the Sarod (less popular than the Sitar but better geared for deep notes) in certain scenes for a reflective emotional underline.Tushar Kanti Ray’s cinematography is easy on the eyes and shows Bombay in soft shades.The climatic flavour here is the Mumbai monsoon, which when its not bringing the city down to its knees, can create a wistful, mellow atmosphere.The film opens with a strongly aesthetic shot of the city seen through the frame of a building level under construction, with the silhouette of a worker in the fore-ground. As Shai gets her archetypal "Bombay at the grass-roots" pictures, we see monochrome artistry in the captures of street hawkers, market vendors, the lunch-box delivery syndicate... And another memorable scene is the end-sequence as the camera pulls its way back through milling roads,recording a sprint through traffic.
’What’s it trying to say?’ or worse still "It doesn't have a proper story!"- so moan many orthodox viewers - after all this pic presents no warm familial saga, no central stream of romance with all conflicts ending in tidy consummation, no comic breaks, no come-uppance of virtue over wickedness, and no philosophically pregnant song&dance sequences. Small wonder then, that at the box-office ,’Mumbai Diaries’ will be fully legible only to a small audience, while the majority will cite dyslexic disinterest. But one hopes that the film has done its bit to further encourage promising film-makers and progressive producers.
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