Dhobi Ghaat: A Review

Dhobi Ghat – Dir: Kiran Rao; *ing: Aamir Khan, Prateik Babbar, Monica Dogra, Kriti Malhotra

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Urban isolation, loss of living history, and unaddressed but ever-present class divides – these are just some of the themes explored in debutante director Kiran’s Rao’s first feature film Dhobi Ghaat, an unglamourous look at four inter-twining lives in the sprawl of Mumbai. It is the city as seen from the eyes of two long-haulers, painter Arun (Khan) and dhobi-cum-nighttime-rat-exterminator Munna (Babbar), and two rank outsiders, American NRI visitor/banker/photographer Shai (Dogra) and small-town immigrant Yasmin (Malhotra). Each one not only has a different perspective on his/her surroundings, but also on their role and context within it. Shai struggles to reconcile her western sensibilities and values with those of her ancestral land which she finds so alien, but finds herself ‘going along’ on more than one occasion. Munna is a dreamer, who harbours seemingly naïve aspirations of being a somebody in a city teeming with nameless nobodies. Yasmin, whom we see only as the protagonist of a self-filmed series of home videos prepared for but never sent to her brother back home, waxes poetic about the sights she sees around her, even as she passively fights the vagaries of an obviously loveless arranged marriage. Arun, separated from his child and ex-wife and loath to participate in the Mumbai social circus, leads a nomadic life, his restless spirit taking him from apartment to apartment, seeking solace in anonymity and inspiration in seclusion. When he happens upon previous tenant Yasmin’s discarded video letters in his latest move, he is intrigued by the young woman’s at once lyrical but elegiac narrative, and gets caught up in the mystery of her whereabouts and why she left the tapes behind. Eventually, Shai unwittingly finds herself at the centre of a triangle with Arun and Munna, while the ever darker mood of Yasmin’s world brings to light a terrible truth…

While some have compared Dhobi Ghaat to Delhi 6 on account of both having urban landscapes as a third character of the story, the two really have little in common. Where Delhi 6 was about frayed but immortal bonds between people, Dhobi Ghaat in many ways is about the lack of connect, with all the characters longing to forge ties but sabotaged either by circumstances or themselves. Munna, obviously enthralled by the uninhibited, unconventional Shai hopes for romance that will cut across the gaping class divide, but Shai, apparently smitten with Arun after an awkward one-night stand, can only offer friendship, albeit one without equal footing but plenty of mixed signals. Yasmin finds a kindred spirit in the shape of the city itself, but not in an oft-absent husband, who is distant not only physically but also emotionally. Arun is the ultimate self-destructive loner, creating a bond with an image on the TV screen but unable or unwilling to do the same with a real person.

Rao’s strength as a filmmaker, at least in this project, is in her ability to capture the loneliness and insularity of her characters’ lives, as well as the sense of isolation that an urban metropolis can project at the best of times. The use of music is minimal, as is any obvious symbolism, and that works to the film’s advantage, infusing it with a quiet melancholy. There is a self-consciousness in her style though, that gives the feeling that she was working overly hard to not make it look pretentious. She succeeds for the most part, but it is a fine line. She is aided by a fine cast, especially Babbar as the endearing, childlike Munna, and Khan, much more restrained in his interpretation than he has been for a while. While it’ll certainly not be to everyone’s taste, Dhobi Ghaat is still a more than respectable debut for a filmmaker with a promising vision.

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