Urban mosaics, styles pioneered by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Shyam Benegal, were made vibrant because of the filmmakers’ firm belief in the power of the cityscape to shape the individual, and in the process, a collective national identity of India. Carved out in the same fashion, Dhobi Ghat, Kiran Rao’s directorial debut, sets its sight on the teeming global crossroads otherwise known as Mumbai, and hits bull-eye with a short, astute family portrait of the only South Asian city that never sleeps.
Branching out from one high-rise that serves as a pretentious sentinel overlooking a crowded working class neighborhood in Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat has the overlapping stories of four characters that inhabit an incredibly broad range of social, economic, religious, marital, sexual and professional spaces. There is Shai (Dogra), an Indian-American on a Mumbai sabbatical from a cushy New York investment banker job. Armed with a camera, she wants to experience the city through the vicarious eyes of her camera. There is Munna (Babbar), the laundry-boy Shai virtually adopts to be her tour-guide. Struggling to make ends meet, Munna interestingly, is the most carefree of the characters.
Then there is Arun (Khan), a jaded, self-centered artist, who is rebounding from a recent divorce and seeks refuge in a self-devised cocoon where the sounds of the city or a one-night stand with Shai fail to resonate the morning after. Finally, there is Yasmin (Malhotra), a living breathing character who, curiously enough, we only see through her home movies. As the prior tenant of Arun’s new apartment, Yasmin’s story-within-the-story unfolds after Arun stumbles upon a stash of home movies featuring Yasmin’s collection of video “letters” intended for her brother (were the home movies hidden? Forgotten? Left behind intentionally?)
The subtext to the vignettes of these four lives that only overlap by careful chance is voyeurism, or more precisely, the nosiness in all of us to know what everyone else is up to. At its high point, or low point, depending entirely on perspective, of course, Munna is chasing after Shai, who he secretly falls in love with, while Shai is busy spying on Arun through her powerful camera lens from a neighboring highrise owned by her father, while Arun in turn watches home movies of the poignant life of the young married Yasmin, who he knows he will never meet and is endlessly fascinated with. Rao packs so much in such a short film (100 mins) that there is no time to ask—is it appropriate to spy on others just because someone else is doing it?
There are, however, a few inconsistencies. Why do Arun and Shai insist on speaking in English? Can it be that Khan is extending an invitation to broaden his ever-increasing international audience? The use of English at a high rise that overlooks this specific working class neighborhood smacks of egalitarian disconnect, and a surprising oversight in what is otherwise a very well structured montage.
On the other hand, some of the best moments that breathe freshness into Dhobi Ghat are the still life portraits that Shai captures of the working class citizenry. These photos bring to mind nothing short of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. Shai’s color photography does for the faces of working Mumbaiites what Ray did for lotus ponds in the Bengal backwoods in black and white.
The best performances are Malhotra’s Yasmin, a vivacious newly-wed, whose plight carries the most pathos of anything in the movie, and Babbar, offspring of the great Smita Patil, perhaps the most gifted female actor to grace the Hindi since passing of Meena Kumari and Nutan. Babbar has both his mother deep penetrating brows and a beguilingly shallow gaze. His Munna is a nobody like the thousands whose daily toil provides the tinder that keeps the city’s wheels trudging and glitz pulsating. Either short and satisfying or disjointed and elitist,Dhobi Ghat is a cityscape worth disappearing into.