Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dhobi Ghat: Mumbai Exposed

Dhobi Ghat (English title: Mumbai Diaries) is the gift that keeps on giving. Released in early 2011, this movie exemplifies what it means to be Indian "arthouse" cinema, i.e. a non-musical film that more closely resembles what the rest of the world regards as normal cinema. This is a movie that demands repeat viewing; when I saw it again this week, I was reminded of just how much I loved it the first time and discovered so much more to love the second time around.

The movie tells the story of four very different people in Mumbai whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. Shai is an NRI (Non Resident Indian) on sabbatical from her New York banking job and wants to explore the city while indulging in some photography. Actress Monica Dogra (who grew up in America herself) does a superb job of hitting all the NRI stereotypes without becoming a complete caricature. Despite her maid's protestations that she shouldn't mix with the lower classes, she strikes up a friendship with Munna, the dhobiwalla who collects her laundry every day. He takes her into the Dhobi Ghat where all of Mumbai's washermen and women gather daily to clean the city's dirty laundry out in the open. As he shows her around his city, he slowly falls in love with this girl who doesn't seem to mind that he is just another poor man from Mumbai. Prateik (the actor who plays Munna) wholly inhabits this role; he will break your heart and make you pay more attention to the servants and workers you would otherwise dismiss so casually.

Shai, who is oblivious to Munna's feelings, has a brief fling with Arun, a Mumbai artist who is not interested in having a relationship and seems entirely wrapped up in his art. Aamir Khan plays this character with quiet restraint - he is a complete puzzle until you start to piece together his story. Shai gradually gathers more information about Arun from other characters (Munna is also his dhobiwalla) but the audience are the only ones truly privy to his inner workings. When Arun moves into his new house, he comes across a set of videotapes left behind by the previous inhabitants. Curious, he starts to watch them and discovers a series of video letters that Yasmin, a new bride who has just arrived in Mumbai, has been recording to send back home to her brother. Yasmin's tapes serve as a newcomer's glimpse into Mumbai, starting off with touristy fascination, then turning into a more personal look into her daily life and her musings on actually living in this turbulent city. Kriti Malhotra brings a perfect balance of cheeriness and melancholy to this role and for the few minutes that she's in front of the camera instead of behind it, she wins your heart.

This is a languid, beautiful, heart-wrenching movie and all four characters are wonderfully realized. Of course, the fifth character is Mumbai itself, and if you've never been there, this movie might be the perfect introduction. It doesn't depict the glamorous fantasy of Bollywood, but it isn't some sordid tale of the slums either. It's just a look at four individuals going about their lives in a city of millions and demonstrates that people have very similar stories no matter where they are in the world.

1 comment:

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