Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)

Actors: Aamir Khan, Prateik Babbar, Monica Dogre, Kriti Malhotra
Genre: Drama
Rating: 4/5

They say the dhobi knows everyone’s secrets because he’s the one washing all dirty linen! In this film, a dhobi forms the nexus between two main characters in the story, why “Dhobi Ghat”. Sorta. How about a Dhobi Ghat where clothes from all over the city congregate, like a city where many lives meet, affect a change, and get affected as well – all four characters? Sounds like the right metaphor. Also presenting the fifth character, Mumbai! In new and non-Bollywood light. The four main characters: Munna (Prateik Babbar), a dhobi, Arun (Aamir Khan), a painter, a loner, Shai (Monica Dogra), a semi-pro photographer on a vacation in Mumbai, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a recently-married girl, new to Mumbai. 

How Munna connects the dots, how the four characters evolve and sporadically intersect, infatuations and revelations developed, is the pith. Dhobi Ghat is unconventional, non-dramatic, and runs heavily on feelings – subtle and not an emotional dump. If emotions form the meat of the story, progression of the plot is the soul. I would rather hold my horses by not divulging the plot details penned by Kiran Rao, and let you affirm after watching.

Prateik Babbar as Munna is the ‘hero’ of DG. No feats really, except radiating talent, nice and bright, while a parallel story was being chaperoned by a luminary like none other than Aamir Khan. Prateik has played the role of a slum-dweller to the hilt. Be it lifestyle, Mumbai slang, embarrassments while confronting the urbane, low-brow humour, and most importantly his relationship with the chic Shai (Monica), all relatable. Modestly built as a shy character, how he slowly gains a friend in Shai, develops a crush, evokes emotion in her by just being around is exemplary. Moving on, Aamir Khan is a rare actor who can hold his own strongly in a bevy of strong characterizations (Eg. Andaz Apna Apna, Rang De Basanti, Taare Zameen Par, etc). Arun is not the cynosure of the film, yet Aamir intelligently uses his screen-time tantamount to others’, to limn out intensity, hollowness, guilt, curiosity, voyeur, disquiet, embarrassment, pedestrian emotions, yet making them appear fresh and bewitching. Much unto himself, Arun does not indulge in soliloquies but Aamir manages to use his expressions and screen-presence well coupled with a dynamic screenplay to help out. In just two adjectives, Aamir as Arun is indispensable and storybook-like.

Monica Dogra as Shai is a type of character the younger Indian audiences may be familiar with. Super-convincing as a US-based ‘NRI’ with a *thing* for all things Indian (mostly the downtrodden), speaking Hindi peppered with an Americanized accent, Monica as Shai is commendable. Shai’s character had two main attributes – pursue photography as a serious hobby, build camaraderie with Munna, and Monica is remindful of a character some of us may probably know in our own lives. A character much defined by Munna’s world, Monica could have done a better job of alluring attention, but that’s just my interpretation of Shai. Next, Kriti Malhotra plays Yasmin, a shy, newly-married girl who is excited about sharing the ongoings with her folks back home. Yasmin is perhaps a peripheral element of DG, but how Yasmin and Arun form a bond in the movie is not everyone’s guess, and is one of the most beautifully thought-out portions. Largely though, Yasmin’s character helps change the mood of the movie eventually.

That debutante Director Kiran Rao may be under the tutelage of a film institution like Aamir Khan may have had something to do with the final product, is fast-food opinion. Agreed Aamir Khan is a perfectionist but his body of work up until now, treatment of plot in any of his movies, photography and screenplay have been significantly mainstream. With DG, Kiran has clearly brought about a new flavour for each of aforementioned talent. Beyond doubt. Taking an ‘artsy’ plot, a slice of life concept (in Kiran’s own words), orthodox and the mundane, to tell a story by conjoining lives loosely by a thread of emotions, thus making the latter the star of the movie – this itself is Kiran’s greatest contribution to DG. While, something of a taboo yet the very common human attribute of voyeurism is given limelight, is also common to the four characters. The direction of the story was largely dependent on how each character peels each layer off of them, to analogize unwarrantedly, like an onion – building four characters all in 100 minutes of runtime! Kiran has made sure that when one story was turning a new page, the other did too parallelly, maintaining the overall feel. Nothing about DG is over the top, Kiran makes your imagination run wild, letting you draw conclusions at times. In this context of letting you make your own interpretation, there are no loopholes one can really look for.Screenplay by Kiran seems slightly under-paced, because seen from a cinematic POV, the film is documentary-ish and does not lollop headily towards a definitive climax. But there is a turn of events, and characters change course. Using the facial expressions, locations, and background music to generate a mood for a frame to delicately reveal a character’s many colours, could have been Kiran’s prerogative, why the screenplay was probably downplayed. Visuals like Arun’s silent and old lady neighbor, Shai’s maid brining chai for Munna in a steel tumbler and for Shai in a porcelain cup, a shy Marathi middle-class lady being videoed Yasmin, etc are some tenuous examples to keep it real yet corroborative. Cinematography by Tushar Kanti Ray is insightful, profound, and to me, game-changing. This, by simply using commonplace visuals that most of us are familiar with, to set the mood for a scene or to re-assure that everything’s within bounds of the everyday. Examples mentioned few sentences ago may give you a better idea. Most of the shots are rich with detail; add great conviction to the film’s rustic feel. All in all, the cinematography gleams bright at you, waiting to be interpreted.

Gustavo Santaolalla provides the musical retreat. The background tunes are intense, range from Oscar Lopez-like Spanish guitar solos to Hindustani Classical music to Jazz and such other contemporary forms. The background music forms an integral part of DG, adding to the narration (substituting at times!), taking the viewer through highs and lows of emotion. Overall, it has urban feel, is very worldspace-like and is much different from regular Bollywood.

Why 4/5:
This film will most certainly polarize the audience – you will either like it or you won’t, no middle ground. Simply because of its innate non-commercial yet global feel, Dhobi Ghat will be approved much more easily by cerebral and the reasoning than the paisa-vasool enthusiasts. While everything else gets a positive rating – Direction, Performances, Cinematography, Background Music and Screenplay; factors like documentary style of filming with quite a focus on the ordinary, nothing over the top, no cliché, and no definitive milestone to achieve through the story and its esoteric nature may seem to go against (certain) viewers. There are no logical loopholes, except would have personally loved to see some more facets added to Shai and Yasmin. Go watch if you like soft films, or purely to check out Mumbai that hasn’t been showcased so far.
4 Responses to “Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)”
  1. Hamsika says:

    I really liked the movie and echo with every single sentence of ur review.. particularly, the 5th character – Mumbai.. (My muse, my whore, my beloved – as Aamir puts it) – good one!!

  2. Sunny says:

    Thanks! I should start remembering dialogues better next time on!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Loved your review. You've said it the way I feel. But really sad to see the film being torn apart by a section of the public plus critics. This heartfelt elegant film debut is being cynically scrutinized and rejected by two groups of people–viewers who need a pucca plot and all the usual handles of a mainstream film rather than a slice of life character driven view; and the second group seems to be those who've decided that this is a pretentious piece of fluff from a smartypants with access to a willing and loving producer-actor. Were this film not associated with Aamir Khan, I doubt if the reactions would have been so extreme.I'm a Tamil from Chennai–and it was heartening to see a full house this weekday afternoon, 25th Jan here in a city where Hindi mainstream does well enough, but a moody Mumbai-centric movie could well have been rejected. Still, I don't see it lasting more than two weeks in theatres, the cosmopolitan Chennai audience notwithstanding.LS

  4. Sunny says:

    LS- Really appreciate you reading and responding with other viewpoints as well! I agree the *other kind*, the cynical viewers are no good – simply because a movie with limited outreach is lambasted through negative word-of-mouth, doesn't achieve true potential. Folks calling DG Aamir Khan's flamboyance must realize his money and time and most importantly, image are at stake. It is for everyone to see Aamir is not the 'lead protagonist' of DG. Ironically, I am not a huge Aamir Khan fan but I think its important to acknowledge men with balls (no pun intended :)). It takes a lot to throw oneself out of their comfort zone. Again and again.I totally understand your grief over the fact that Chennai has not fully opened up to Hindi art cinema, but if you will, I daresay its not comparable to the 90s. Even if the movie-watching experience in the theaters may not match 'Enthiran', I think there is large audience base to soak up good cinema – mainstram or parallel. Fashion and food are already there, music and movies will get there too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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