Mayank Shekhar's Review: Dhobi Ghat

Was it not for such skillful execution, this would’ve been a smart diploma film from a good student of a fine film school. Rao (supremely secure for a debutant) effectively marries the worlds of Arun, his digital muse, Munna, Shy, writes Mayank Shekhar.
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Updated on Jan 22, 2011 02:59 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByMayank Shekhar, New Delhi

Dhobi Ghat

Director: Kiran Rao

Actors: Prateik, Aamir Khan, Monica Dogra

Rating: ***1/2

Munna (Prateik, immeasurably natural), Shai (Monica, easygoing) dig into keema pav at a local Irani cafe. The boy’s handsome. The girl’s hot. The two would yet make for a weird couple at a restaurant in Mumbai.

The boy’s reticent, restrained, quiet, burdened by the finality of his class. He’s poor, from Darbhanga district in Bihar, a dhobi (washer-man, a profession that doesn’t exist in the First World anymore). He services Mumbai’s rich.

The girl’s chic, a non-resident Indian banker. She can afford luxuries like, what the Americans call a “sabbatical”, long leave to pursue passions like photography. A deracinated worldview accessed from the West alone, I suppose, allows her to share tea, hang out, make relaxed conversations with the boy as an equal. They’re still boy and girl. She fits in. He never forgets his boundaries. The connect remains warmly odd, oddly real, incredibly satisfying.

The film is about 90 minutes long. There is still time to observe this delicate chemistry gently play out between the two. Which storyteller will want their audiences to suddenly switch off? There is no interval. Script finally wins over the great Indian extortionist cinema snack counter. Finally!

At that Irani café, the girls asks the boy about a common acquaintance --client of Munna’s -- Arun, a middle aged artist (Aamir Khan: admirable move for a mainstream super-star in this subdued a part, though probably a miscast for the same reasons). The boy tells her about how that man was married once, he has kids in Australia, they had an ugly breakup, for days he wouldn’t open his door… The girl’s excessively inquisitive. “What happened (to him) then?” she asks. “Nothing,” the boy shrugs.

Nothing of terrible national significance happens through much of the movie either. To a lot of film buffs, a picture is probably a ‘pacy’ plot: there’s little of it here. Drama is in the expressed emotions alone: there’s minimalism onscreen, you may not even notice the subtle background score. Those movie fans are likely to feel frustrated.

“Commercial”, of course, is any film that makes money. This low-budget one should qualify as well. Munna knows nothing about Arun, because frankly he couldn’t give a damn. Curiosity is an affectation of the rich. The boy has enough drama in his own darker world to deal with, besides a dream to become a macho actor someday. Salman Khan is his idol.

Here’s what happened to Arun: He moved into a place in dingy Mohamed Ali Road to seek inspiration for his art. He found muse instead in a home video lying around at his apartment, of a former tenant -- a Muslim housewife from Malyabad (Uttar Pradesh) – who would record her lonely days as letters to her brother back home.

He watches these videos all day now, addicted as if to porn. He soaks it in. He paints. Somewhere the artistic inspiration turns into an obsession. As does the NRI girl Shai’s interest in the loner artist. She knows him from one night of casual love on wine.

Was it not for such skillful execution, this would’ve been a smart diploma film from a good student of a fine film school. Rao (supremely secure for a debutant) effectively marries the worlds of Arun, his digital muse, Munna, Shy. Narratives crisscross, like all “hyperlink films” (in vogue for long now). You’re visually engaged. There is calmness in the air. The experience stays with you.

Bombay, you figure, is the centre of this film’s attention. It’s probably the only city in the world where so many classes so closely merge into a common river of sorrows, beauty or hope: unaware of how each affects the other every day.

I step out of the theatre; feeling slightly quiet in the head, walk straight into the noisy city this film is set in. Popular songs play for background score in my cab. The busy street has people rushing, as usual, for God knows where: each unique within a mass. The chatty cabby shares with me some story of Aamir Khan, of all people. We still have something in common, for only a moment, of course. It seemed a scene from Dhobi Ghat!

This film is first-rate tribute; it’s visceral, I realise -- both clichés for compliments. Nothing more appropriate comes to mind.

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