Dhobi Ghat: Beautiful Portrait, Inspiring Cinema
By MovieTalkies.com, 21 January 2011
A poster caught one's eye as this critic walked up the stairs of the suburban theatre where 'Dhobi Ghat' was being screened. It was for 'Biutiful', Alejandro Iñárritu's latest release. One wondered whether it was a bit of foreshadowing, given the Mexican filmmaker's penchant for portmanteau films where multiple lives and stories collide and the fact that the film I was about to watch was also supposed to revolve around the stories of four characters. As I discovered in the theatre, though, while there is the faintest fragrance of Iñárritu's style of storytelling in 'Dhobi Ghat', Kiran Rao, in her directorial debut, displays a cinematic idiom all of her own.
As the end credits of 'Dhobi Ghat' rolled, I realised that Kiran Rao has picked the most apt title for her film. The title comes from the famous washers' complex a minute's walk from Mahalaxmi station in Mumbai, where one of the characters from the film is shown living and working as a washerboy. The scene of rows upon rows of washing pens here are a favourite with tourists stopping by in the megacity. Dhobi Ghat lies just off another Mumbai landmark, a roundabout by the name of Jacob Circle. The place is also known as 'Saat Rasta', or 'seven streets', as seven arterial roads branch out to various parts of the city from this point, making it the symbolic heart of the island city. Effectively, in naming her film 'Dhobi Ghat', Rao, too, has touched upon the heart of this city, which is the one, all pervading character in the story.
'Dhobi Ghat' reveals its core, its theme, to the discerning, within the first few seconds of the film. The scene opens up in a rundown Mumbai cab being pounded by the rains, where an off camera voice is seemingly recording everything she sees and hears, for some reason. The lady strikes up a conversation with the taxi driver, which reveals that she too is a migrant to Mumbai, just like him and so many others in the city. As the conversation ends, she shifts her camera's view onto the car's window, capturing a glimpse of the seductively beautiful Marine Drive promenade. The subtext here comes in the form of the strains of an old Bollywood melody coming out of the cab's radio. The song is the Lata Mukesh classic, 'dil tadap tadap ke keh raha hai aa bhi ja', which beautifully conveys the character's longing for something she cannot have. It is this theme of yearning that binds together all four characters in this pastiche.
As the film's story opens up, we are introduced to Aamir Khan's pensive painter, Arun, a recluse being celebrated on Mumbai's art scene. Arun, who seems to be lost without a muse, fills the void by having flings here and there; while it is hinted that he gets frequently frisky with his agent, played by Kitu Gidwani, it is the one night stand he has with Monica Dogra's Shai that confirms this. Shai Edulji, in turn, an extremely affluent Indo American, investment banker by profession and photographer by passion, is in Mumbai on a sabbatical to study the city. Following her encounter with the artist, she proceeds to get thoroughly obsessed with him. In between, she strikes up a friendship with her washerboy, Munna, played by Prateik, an aspiring actor who first convinces her to shoot a portfolio of his and then acts as her guide around the city. The good looking Munna, who lives in some of the poorest parts of Mumbai and works at the Dhobi Ghat, finds himself slowly falling in love with Shai; but unwittingly, he is also feeding her need for information about Arun, who he is also 'dhobi' to.
In the midst of all this, we find Arun moving into a house in some of the oldest parts of the city around Mohammed Ali Road. But this old house has a character of its own; Arun is haunted by the memories of its earlier resident, which he finds, hidden away as videotapes in an old almirah. The voice, from the beginning of the film, we now learn, belongs to Yasmin Noor, played by Kriti Malhotra, a newly wed bride who has settled in the city with her husband and is quietly pining away for her brother and her family whom she has left back in her home state of Uttar Pradesh. It is in this pining that she starts recording video letters to send back to her brother, where she gives him an introduction to Mumbai and its people in a series of monologues, but also unknowingly records her own longing. Arun finds his muse in Yasmin, watching whom, he suddenly finds himself more sociable, more open to people and suddenly brimming with ideas to work on. Alas, Yasmin's monologues hold a deep secret, that could potentially destroy Arun and his connect with his city.
Kiran's four characters exist in a static state, just floating around, fairly. There are no highs, or lows to the story, no great insight into their beings. In fact, the film really captures all four individuals at singular moments in their lives, sans any detailed back story, making it simply an exploration of their longing for loves they cannot have. But towering over them is a fifth character, which is that of the city of Mumbai itself.
Kiran finds various metaphors to frame a city that sees everything, hears everything, but says nothing. The most literal amongst these is Arun's catatonic neighbour, whose expression never changes through the film, who reacts to nobody. There is also metaphor of the sea and the endless, perpetual rain, which holds countless secrets, but speaks none. But the most beautiful moment comes on one of the videos, where Yasmin urges her maid's young, school going daughter to recite a poem for her. The work the young girl chooses is Lord Tennyson's 'The Brook', which, with its famous line, “for men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever”, is, perhaps, as apt a description for the city as any.
Kiran's style in 'Dhobi Ghat' finds a similarity to the works of Jim Jarmusch, in the form of her visuals; in that, the film's focus is firmly on the imagery it depicts, more so than the story it tells. The debutant director casts a loving portrait of the city, using a combination of moving and still images, to capture Mumbai at its most beautiful, rough edges and all. Her use of Yasmin's handheld videos and Shai's black and white photography in doing so is a masterstroke. Director of Photography Tushar Kanti Ray's work gels perfectly with Kiran's vision here and is quite brilliant. The use of guerrilla techniques in filming captures areas like Nagpada, Mohammed Ali Road and Mahalaxmi in their element. Jyotika Jain's still photography, passed off as that of Shai in the film, is equally stunning.
Kiran Rao's choice of the Argentine Gustavo Santaolalla for music in the film is most curious, not in the least because the two time Oscar winner for background score is also a regular feature in Iñárritu's films. Gustavo's guitar based melodies that underlay the film are the very definition of haunting. But the triumph on the soundtrack is the way Kiran uses the thumri of Begum Akhtar in 'ab ke sawan ghar aaja' and Siddheshwari Devi's dadra in 'khamaj' to convey the mood of the film, both continuing in the theme of yearning.
Apart from her cinematography, Kiran also serves up perfection in casting. The fact that she is married to one of her principal actors, Aamir Khan, works beautifully in favour of 'Dhobi Ghat', as the film makes no deference to his superstar status, not allowing his presence to cloud that of any of the other characters. Khan, who is also coproducer, quietly underplays Arun, and perfectly conveys the wistfulness of his character.
Kriti Malhotra as Yasmin, exists only in her video monologues, but manages to turn in a superb performance. She conveys as much in her words as she does through her eyes. Monica Dogra, one half of the band Sha'ir + Func, also shines in a role tailor made to suit her, accent and all. Her depiction of Shai, obsessed with Arun on one hand and concerned about Munna on the other, is spot on. But the real star in the film is Prateik, who plays his slum dwelling washerboy, obsessed with becoming a movie hunk, with superb sincerity. While there is room for him to improve, especially in areas such as his diction (for example, the word is 'khala', not 'kala'), he plays both, the pathos and the passion, of his character to perfection.
Even the other actors in the film are well cast. Danish Hussain as Munna's brother Salim, and Jehan Manekshaw as Shai's friend Pesi are both equally good. Kittu Gidwani turns in a nice few scenes as Arun's agent Vatsala.
In summation, 'Dhobi Ghat' comes as a breath of fresh air to Indian cinema. Rather European in its sensibilities, very Latin American in its visuals, 'Dhobi Ghat' elementally has Mumbai at its heart. Though there are no highs, lows or any hoorahs at the end, and some, who are used to the 'crash, boom, bang' of Bollywood, might find its pacing slack, Kiran Rao crafts a graceful film in 'Dhobi Ghat', simply about life and relationships in a fast city.
Though she might have been known as Aamir Khan's wife so far, with 'Dhobi Ghat', Kiran casts a distinct identity all of her own, as a filmmaker of immense vision and skill, someone who can now take her place in the pantheon of India's new age, global filmmakers. As for 'Dhobi Ghat' itself, it must be experienced firsthand.