Monday, January 24, 2011

DHOBI GHAT: a personal review of fleeting moments

First things first, I have been an arthouse and world cinema buff for years and had one thing in mind this week: to watch Kiran Rao's debut movie 'Dhobi Ghat'. It had been presented as a niche audience movie, she was compared by the press to  Mira Nair and nothing sounded more promising than spending an evening in the company of Rao's view of Bombay.

I came out of the cinema hall thinking that 'Dhobi Ghat' is about how we come to realizations that could change our core but at the same time "chalo, life goes on"... 'Dhobi Ghat' (Mumbai Diaries) is the story of four people living in the city of Bombay. Some of their paths touch , sometimes affecting each other. But life continues.

The movie is an eclectic set of fleeting moments in the city. These will leave you thoughtful or may simply flow away unnoticed. Audiences enjoying the movie will take more from it with each repeated view. The condition is to like it so much as to watch it several times, which is a tough bet for any movie director. Rao seems confident enough and we wish her the best in this sense.

So let's take a look at 'Dhobi Ghat' and its story. Shai, the main character, is an NRI investment banker who has photography for a hobby and is on a sabbatical in Bombay. She never seems to be affected by culture shock and this is an interesting point as we wonder whether she already lived in Bombay in the past or if she is so Indianized that she is completely not affected by what visitors see as overwhelming in a large Indian city, etc. Kiran Rao here seems to follow in the steps of movies such as Adlon's 'Bagdad Cafe' where the protagonist's past is left sketchy on purpose.

Through Shai, the lives of several characters criss-cross:

- Munna (Prateik), a dhobi walla who serves as Shai's guide to the city and hopelessly pines for her,

- Arun (Aamir Khan), a broody painter who has a one night stand with Shai very early on in the story but slowly falls in love with a woman he accidentally watches on a batch of video tapes, and

- Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a Muslim woman who arrives in Bombay from the country and makes video tapes to tell her brother about life in the city.

The premise is highly promising but the way it appears on screen might leave a spectator a bit hungry. As much as Kiran Rao has visibly worked on this movie I wonder if a niche audience would be able to rave about it as much as I wished if the movie didn't benefit from the presence of Bombay, Prateik and Aamir Khan. Rao made an excellent choice in casting both actors for her male characters. The same unfortunately cannot be said about the movie's main role. Even if Monica Dogra (Shai) is pleasant to look at, she is not from an acting background and this seems obvious very quickly. There seems to be many things in the movie that should have been "said" through her character but this obstacle makes it difficult, and this is really unfortunate.

Meanwhile Rao's love for the city presents Bombay's daily life through its different classes and symbols. The movie tries to capture the soul of Bombay's different inhabitants with a movie camera, camcorder or black & white photography. An intimate view of expected places such as Gateway of India and Marine Drive appear on the screen but also original shots of Ganesh Chaturthi, Mohd Ali Road during Ramzan (marvellous shot of Khan walking with the crowd and it is admirable to have pulled that scene off), dhobi ghat and other less visited areas of the city. Bombay colors it all. Dreams, encounters, broken pasts. Portraying Bombay as a 5th character is one of Kiran Rao's most brilliant ideas and I salute it and wanted more.

In my very honest opinion, the movie's narrative would possibly lend itself very well to a book or novel where one can appreciate the deep thoughts and feelings of the characters. This is my strongest concern with 'Dhobi Ghat'. In many arthouse films, there is much left unsaid and this is fine to a certain limit. I so wished Rao took the spectator just a tiny bit more by the hand to get a glimpse under the surface of a movie that feels so delicately personal but yet remains difficult to unveil for some audiences. I was a little taken aback by the way Kiran Rao's movie narrative develops with an unexpected amount of restraint. It might be that this is her debut movie, or that the editing could have been much finer. The restraint in her movie narrative may seduce, but it is a matter of personal taste. I felt as if I was reading the diary of someone who was afraid his or her words would be found and read by someone else and this was in the end an obstacle that kept me from connecting 100% with the movie.

There is certainly a fresh idea and the male characters are very finely thought out. The delicate moments here and there tease the spectator but conceal - maybe too effectively - the underlying thread of the story. Less than 20 minutes from the movie's end, a sudden wave of dark emotions is shown. One understands briefly what the film is trying to say and as quickly as that happens, the bustle of Bombay takes over again. For all four characters life goes on and the credits roll.

Do watch 'Dhobi Ghat' for Prateik, who is absolutely brilliant and must have been a delightful actor to direct because of the talent he pierces the screen with. It is a joy to watch such a promising young actor. Another superb reason to watch the movie is to experience first hand what Aamir Khan is impressively capable of emoting in silence. This is one area of the movie where I think tight restraint is the best choice. The quiet performance by Khan slowly gives life to his character and is extremely effective. It may seem strange but even though this is a movie of feminine sensibility, the ones who one can feel growing and feeling to the core on the screen are Arun and Munna. Newcomer Kriti Malhotra also gives a very commendable performance and her character is well written.

Kiran Rao has made an experimental movie and even though one can sense it is the first story she has worked on, she does succeed in making a very personal portrait of Bombay's streets, symbols, sounds and silences. We certainly hope that her future stories will allow her to feel more and more comfortable expressing herself. Moviegoers will have a new original voice in alternative filmmaking to admire.

Note from editor: Aamir Khan has recently announced that the amazing background score of 'Dhobi Ghat' will be released for download in the near future. The soundtrack was composed by Academy Award winner Gustavo Santaolalla.

'Dhobi Ghat'
Release date: 21 January 2011

Director: Kiran Rao
Story and screenplay: Kiran Rao
Cast: Prateik, Aamir Khan, Kriti Malhotra, Monica Dogra

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