Rat-lyncher by night, dhobi (washerman) by day, Bollywood hero in his dreams—where else but in Mumbai? Munna (Prateik), one of the characters in Kiran Rao’s debut film Dhobi Ghat, is all of these. He has the steeliness that the margins of this city, much larger than all those who inhabit it, can impart. He is fragile at the same time, but not in a brooding way. Munna is the man about Dhobi Ghat, the enormous archipelago of grey water which absorbs the city’s dirt—a kind of Mumbai totem, which has long appeared exotic to the Western eye.
Arun (Aamir Khan) and Munna (Prateik). Courtesy: Aamir Khan Productions
Rao is sensitive in her portrayal of it, her eyes and ears alert to its colours and rhythms. Her lived-in knowledge and love for Mumbai shines through.
Dhobi Ghat is about the beauty and heartbreak of those who seek to live meaningfully in Mumbai. Rao’s four protagonists—a dhobi, an invest-ment banker on a sabbatical who chronicles the city’s seamy belly with her camera under the pretext of a rather bogus-sounding project, a painter who lives in his intensely personal artistic cocoon, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage and the nostalgia of a home left behind—are not offshoots or victims of the bhai. Far from it, although a drug-peddling flunky of a slum lord does make a compelling appearance.
The four characters are written as cameos; their lives as vignettes of life in the city. But all of them are convincingly real, each with a telling graph of their own. Their language and idiom have authenticity and spontaneity—be it the English of Arun the painter (Aamir Khan) or Shai the photographer (Monica Dogra), the lyrical Hindi of Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) or the tapori tongue of Munna.
Dhobi Ghat opens with Arun. He is moving to a decrepit apartment on Mohammad Ali Road. He is an artist with a hard-selling gallerist Vatsala (Kitu Gidwani). At the opening of his new solo show, he meets Shai, whose NRI parents are art collectors. She is on a sabbatical from her investment banker job in New York, completing a photography project documenting the Mumbai she has never been exposed to. Arun and Shai hit it off and spend a drunken night together in Arun’s apartment. Munna is dhobi to both Arun and Shai. Shai uses Munna to get access to Dhobi Ghat and Nagpada, neighbourhoods she has no access to. She develops a fondness for him, which disguises her selfishness, and Munna begins to fall in love with her.
Arun discovers his new muse in a drawer of his new apartment—three video tapes of Yasmin, who moved to the city after getting married to a man who, she discovers, has no love for her. Her husband has bought her a video camera, which she uses to record herself raconteuring Mumbai. The tapes are her letters to her brother Imran. Arun starts watching the tapes obsessively and they become the inspiration for his next big project. Shai falls in love with Arun.
There is no neat conclusion to the stories of these characters. The points of intersection are narrative tools. The focus of Rao’s story is really her characters in relation to Mumbai. The film’s narrator is Yasmin, who has an overawed, and often poetic, point of view of the city—its rain, filth, the sea and throbbing human convergences.
The multiple-narrative, hyper-connected plot is not new. Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros), Fatih Akin (The Edge of Heaven) and many others, including Mani Ratnam (Yuva) and Anurag Basu (Life in a Metro...) have used it. Rao’s achievement is in her gentle but unflinching gaze on Mumbai. The Mumbai micro-worlds in Dhobi Ghat ring true because they are free of stereotypes. Most of her scenes have silences, which add to their impact. The scintillating background music by Gustavo Santaolalla is the film’s star. It complements the film’s mellowness.
The visual treatment, with evocative camerawork by Tushar Kanti Ray, is one of its most eloquent points of view. The locations, including the serpentine, overcrowded alleys of Mohammad Ali Road, bylanes of Ballard Pier and of course, Dhobi Ghat itself, demand a new gaze and it is obvious that the cinematographer is inspired. The film opens with Marine Drive, as seen through a moving hand-held video camera, on a grey monsoon evening.
This is Prateik’s second role and he carries off an immensely likeable character. Rao uses his subdued real-life personality and projects it in Munna. His straight-faced nonchalance is amusing as well as sorrowful. He is, perhaps unintentionally, the film’s backbone. This is Dogra’s first role and she grasps it with maturity and ease. Khan has few dialogues, but largely through expressions he lends the sensitive, selfish artist a dignity.
This is one of the best films I have seen on Mumbai. Rao allows Mumbai to be cruel, but hearty and beautiful. For anyone who has lived here or imagined it, Dhobi Ghat is a treat.
Dhobi Ghat released in theatres on Friday.