If only colours on a palette could speak
Without light were no portraits lit
If tapes could carry the sounds of cries
Of the lonely voyager wounded by the hit
In a city where everything changes
Even the point where the loved ones meet
Movement is the key, and those who dont
Are lost in the melee of transit
Kiran Rao was hitherto known as Aamir Khan's celeb wife. But with her directorial debut, she proves that she can match the man she shares her bed with. Dhobi Ghaat is perhaps the first slice of life film from mainstream Hindi cinema which does justice to its basic premise -- not to get judgemental but only present a pragmatic view of existences in respective spheres. Earlier attempts like Madhur Bhandarkars Traffic Signal were too opinionated.
Four characters -- Munna, Shai, Arun and Yasmin each survive in their different zones; but destiny brings them closer and collides their paths in a way that each becomes a fulcrum for the other.
Munna (Prateik sans the surname) is a dhobi who had left home with his uncle years back to find a livelihood in Mumbai. He has built up his physique and now wears his dream on his sleeve -- a dream to star on the silver screen, the same space where his favourite hero Salman Khan reigns. You cant miss the posters on Salman in Munnas chawl or the blue bracelet archetypical of the superstar. Munna is innocent, hard working, satiates his rich housewife client, saves drunkards lying by railway tracks and lends money to needy friend. Salim (Danish Hussain) is his best friend and sole confidant till he meets Shai.
Shai (Monica Dogra) is an investment banker settled in US who comes to Mumbai on a sabbatical to pursue her passion in photography. Like many NRIs or foreigners visiting India, her subject lies in the pictures of reality or so to say the images of non-prosperity and the nations core -- dhobi ghaats, fish markets, crowded streets or rat-killers. She befriends Munnai who becomes her guide as well as model for first photo-shoot assignment. But there is someone else who defines her stay in the city -- a man she had met and slept during her early days in the city " a man she is besotted with -- Arun.
Arun (Aamir Khan) is divorced, recluse, whimsical and above all a painter. Away from his wife and son (who are now settled in Australia) Arun lives his unapologetically lonely life through his sketch-board and visions. He listens to Hindustani classical, smokes incessantly, mixes whisky with rain-water and occasionally sleeps with his manager Vatsala (Kitu Gidwani). Shifted to a new flat on Md Ali Road, his focal point in life suddenly shifts when he comes across a few belongings of the previous dwellers in the apartment. He turns on the tape non-chalantly but almost instantly gets hooked to it. He meets his muse whom he is willing to share with none -- Yasmin.
Like others in the game, Yasmin Noor (Kriti Malhotra) is also a loner -- in her case it is out of compulsion and not choice. She comes to Mumbai as chirpy young housewife but the stay in the city gradually changes her life as well as her nature. She survives through her camera, her sole companion amidst an isolated life. Petite to the extent of being fragile, her story is almost like a video diary containing letters said to her brother residing in Malihabad, UP. She captures little details of her life including the visit to Marine drive, the old silent neighbour to even the maid Latabai and her daughter. Her track is the most poignant one in the film and you cant help but get drawn like a voyeur into her life, similarly as Arun does.
Yes, it takes a little while before letting you have a grip over the flow but almost without notice, you are drawn into the lives of the four almost witnessing it happen before your eyes.
The film has plenty of instances which are so real that they seem to have been lifted from your life. To count a few would start with the instance where Shais maid serves tea to her and Munna. Yasmins recording is very natural, especially when she talks to the maid and her daughter. The way the girl proclaims her English medium education, recites Alfred Tennyson's "The Brook" but shies away from dancing is endearing. Aruns involvement with the tapes and his bursting out of the home in the end are brilliant. Watch out for the sequence when Munna rubbishes the idea of a unique portfolio and demands one to be done in a studio, and Shai checking him out when he poses shirtless. The tacit sexual energies between Munna and Shai are beautifully portrayed even to little nuances like when he guards her with an arm while they walk on Md Ali Street. The last scene where Munna runs along the congested street to give Aruns new address to Shai is an icing on the cake.
Yes, the film does have its corners about which you can complain or question. When the director had been so clear right from the beginning that it was an art film and meant for a particular class, then what was the necessity of an altogether Hindi version? The dubbing in certain scenes look extremely out of the place and your attention shifts to the fact that the lips dont sync with dialogues. It is tough to imagine a rookie like Yasmin deftly managing camera in one hand and writing on the sand with another. Or would a person who bathes by the train lines wear a towel while putting on his shorts, that too within in his room, especially when he is already wearing boxers under? But these are little blemishes. Perhaps, I noticed these stuffs because the remaining parts were so real.
Aamir Khan underplays his role brilliantly. He brings out the whims of an artist and obsession with his new muse to amazing impact. Kriti Malhotra lends an amazing simplistic charm to her story. Despite the fact that her track is independent of the rest and primarily based on her monologue, not for one moment could you feel bored. She brought Yasmin out of the tapes and almost to life. Such was the mystique of her character that I could feel myself in Aruns place and equally besotted with the tapes and her entity. Monica Dogra as the confused Shai is first rate. She is fascinated with Aruns persona but there is a part of her which strongly feels for Munna. Her tears in the final scene bring out the dilemma and make you feel for her. In fact, the ease with which she shuttles between the painter and the dhobi amazes you. Last, but not the least, is Prateik as the Bihar expat washerman who has no qualms of not being with his family. He is the soul of the film. Perhaps thats the reason why the makers titled the movie Dhobi Ghaat coz I couldnt find any other reason. As Aamir and Kiran have been rightly claiming, Prateik is a revelation in the film. If you liked him as the crackpot brother in Jaane Tu, you will love him here. Cant point one instance where he excels because he does so throughout. The supporting cast are decent.
A critique to this film wont be complete without mentioning the ones who worked on it and not in it. Tushar Kanti Ray lends an amazing vision through his lenses. Dynamic yet stoic, the camera movements in the film lend a distinct angle to Kiran Raos storytelling. He portrays Mumbai in such a way that the city comes out to become a separate entity here. After Rajkumar Guptas Aamir, this one presents the heart of the metropolis and makes you move along with the characters. Heres a new cinematographer to look out for. The production design and art direction are well done. The setting in Munnas chawl is just wonderful. Gustavo Santaolalla, the two time Academy Award winner for Babel and Brokeback Mountain, lends an amazing edge with his tunes which gel beautifully with the movie. Just wish the bgm had been more generously used.
Kiran Raos directorial debut will surely bring her a lot of critical acclaim but the same cannot be said for sure about the commercial success. The film is intended only towards the urban intelligentsia and below it, the acceptance might be less. It is a slice of life and so those who enter a theatre hoping for hardcore entertaining script will be disappointed. But those who like seamless hyper-linked stories which peep into lives without dwelling in them or being judgemental about those, will surely love it.
The characters and instances will grow with time. Heres raising a glass of Jack to the new maker on the block. Cheers!