Hindi cinema is changing at a rapid pace. More and more new filmmakers with promise are entering the arena. Each has his/her own distinct style and all have their specific influences. Some have been highly successful, others not quite so much. However, all show promise and make you look forward to their movies. The latest entrant in this arena is Kiran Rao. However, I wish I could be as enthusiastic about her debut film.
The stories: Shai (Monica Dogra) is an investment banker with a penchant for photography. She meets Arun (Aamir Khan), a lonely painter with Mumbai as his muse and makes a connection. She also meets Munna a.k.a. Sohaib (Prateik), a dhobi who serves both, Arun and Shai and quickly becomes friends with him. He aspires to be an actor someday. In the meanwhile, Arun uncovers some video tapes in his new house belonging to the previous owner, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) and immediately finds inspiration in her stories. Art imitates life and we see these lives connect with each other in the city that is Mumbai.
In terms of storytelling, the influence of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Amorres Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) is quite evident in Kiran Rao’s style. However, while she seems remarkably comfortable with the methods of the acclaimed filmmaker, meaning remains elusive. Her film never amounts to more than the sum of its parts. While her characters are real and fully realised, their interactions with each other are far too fleeting; too momentary, too punctuated and vague to make a real connection with or provide a larger meaning to the viewer. If only Kiran Rao, the writer, had strengthened these connections and provide a larger context, then we would be looking at a masterpiece. None of the stories are given a clear or satisfactory conclusion. Without this, it is little more than scattered stories; interesting individually but pointless as a whole. The film is subtle to a fault. Further, for a film that attempts to be realistic, the relationship between two key protagonists of the film (Munna and Shai) is anything but real. It is hard to believe that an affluent investment banker could so easily forge a friendship with a dhobi, that too, without a hint of opposition or distaste from her posh friends and family.
Nevetheless, there are three factors that work in favour of the film. First, it is a loving portrait of the city that is Mumbai. Never has the city been captured on camera more beautifully; from the posh and modern Marine Drive and Walkeshwar to the seedier parts of Mohammed Ali Road and Grant Road. It is a gorgeous, intelligent and whole-hearted tribute to the older parts of the city, bursting with history, culture and nostalgia. The beauty is in the details, and there are plenty. It presents Mumbai with all its contradictions: the freedom and the claustrophobia, the triumphs and the frustrations, the ostentatious and the pretentious, the beautiful and the disgusting.
The second thing that works greatly in favour of the film is the background score of Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Motorcycle Diaries, Babel). Interspersed with some beautiful Hindustani classical music, it provides some much needed depth to the otherwise sparse screenplay and sets the tone of the film perfectly in several places. Its minimalism (a key feature of the maestro’s work generally) lends volumes more than the characters do.
The final point is the performance of Prateik. The man gives a career-making performance as Munna. He effortlessly delivers a nuanced, layered performance as the sweet, innocent and charming lad toughened by his harsh realities and steals the thunder from all of his co-stars. Although his character is not very well developed, it is the bravura performance of this young actor that breathes life into the film. He is the underdog and you can’t help but root for him. Another performance that remains with the viewer is that of Kriti Malhotra as Yasmin. Easily the most well sketched character in the enterprise, she draws you into her little world and anchors the film in meaning.
Ultimately, Dhobi Ghat is something worth seeing, but not celebrating. It is remarkable, but not memorable. It has more in common with the flawed Babel than with Amorres Perros. Rao has a fresh voice, but she's not sure of what she wants to say. Her film is good, but lacks the emotional depth and is too vague; too scattered to be considered great.