Friday, January 13, 2012

Dhobi Ghat - Movie Review

Watched 'Dhobi Ghat' last night. It has a different take on Mumbai and had a few moments when it drew me into it. And for a first time director I think its pretty well-made. It is visually appealing, is unhurried, explores new nooks and corners of Mumbai and its UP-Bihar-rest of India connection, traverses the class divide from the highest to the lowest. But overall I found it unconvincing simply because I never bought the story of the two rich people, the investment banker (though she does a really good job) and the artist (reliable and somehow almost muted to the extent of looking like he is gagged). The story of Yasmin is what drags you in and to some extent the story of the dhobi, rat killer, aspiring film actor, Munna (Pratiek).

I don't know why Kiran Rao chose the name 'Dhobi Ghat' but anyway, the story is about a rich investment banker from New york down in Mumbai with her rich real estate tycoon Parsi parents on a sabbatical. I assume she was doing some photo-project on livelihoods in India. She meets an artist Arun (Aamir Khan) who is not comfortable with people, with anything in fact. We come to know he has recently been divorced, and that his wife lives in Australia with their six year old son. The two (artist and investment banker) somehow land up in bed at the artist's house that night, though I saw no signs of amour in the artist, and the girl did not appear highly sexed either. Anyway they wake up the next day and we find a 40-45 year old artist apologising to the investment banker who is actually telling him that she found the experience really enjoyable. His apology seems to bring up some bad memories in her and she storms out of the house, offended, for god-knows-what. To me that scene was the most unconvincing and perhaps needless as well. Why sleep when you don't want to? Why apologise? Why get offended?

Anyway they get on. And then they meet Mumbai's only dhobi Pratiek. This is another loose end because no dhobi can take on more than a single building's loads in Mumbai and even that's a bit too much. But here is this guy traversing all over the town and doing dhobi services for Arun and investment banker and also throwing in some extra services for one more rich, fat, middle class madam. For some reason the investment banker drags the dhobi to be her guide to livelihoods in Mumbai and he shows her the dhobi ghat where she takes pictures. They also see some movies, drink chai at home, takes him on drives in her cars and leads him on big time. Her work is never shown, her motives are unclear. Is she in love? Is she doing her project and needs him for that? Is she using him to get to the do-it-first- and-then-apologise artist Arun? Anyway she shoots Munna's portfolio for his movie chance and gives him prints. Meanwhile she is also taking pictures of the apologetic artist surreptitiously for reasons best known to her.

But the best part of the movie are the three videos made by Yasmin Noor, a girl from UP who comes to Mumbai after her marriage. She makes the videos to send to her younger brother Imran in her village. But by the end of the third video the chirpy and happy Yasmin finds that her husband is in fact already married and is a shady customer in reality and decides to kill herself. She is brilliant, her voice haunting, the lines given to her the best. 'I can tell the sea all my secrets, and it will keep them safe from me' or something to that effect. Anyway her tapes lie with the artist who realises that Yasmin had killed herself in the very room he is sitting and he instantly changes houses. I mean, people die everywhere but you don't change houses so often do you? The movie ends with the investment banker finding the dhobi by chance, hugging him and telling him to keep in touch and call. It is apparent that she wants to get the artist and not the dhobi now. The jealous dhobi does not give her the address of the artist but later, after she leaves, has a change of heart and follows her rather dangerously (why did he not call on her phone and tell her?) and gives her the address of the artist. She is grateful and sheds a tear and that ends it all.

I'd have liked the artist to have gone after the girl Yasmin and I would have liked to know more of her. Perhaps even a bit more of the dhobi and his dreams. Some resolution of their lives. Even if it meant that the investment banker and the artist get together for that cause and fall in love in their unconvincing manner. For me somehow Kiran Rao stopped short of taking this story to where I wanted it to go. By not following Yasmin, and by not really helping the dhobi, the artist and the investment banker show themselves as hollow people. The least they could have, if they were so moved by the plight of these two characters. It all ends as it does in real life. In all likelihood the artist and the investment banker will meet, sleep together and go their separate ways. The dhobi will do what he does best, wash clothes and kill rats (why?).

It had many possibilities this movie and I am disappointed that it did not choose a more courageous path. Still it gets into your system through its visuals, its pace and perhaps a connect to the two stories that I really liked. For Kiran Rao then, a more than decent debut, and hopefully the evolution of what appears to be a promising career as a sensitive, subtle director. As she gains more confidence I think she will make some fine movies.

Among the performances Yasmin takes the cake, she is brilliant with her voice and her eyes and with almost no movement but in front of the video camera, she draws you into her story. Pratiek is good, I loved the way he walked when he comes with the ironed clothes and the way he opens the bundle and takes out the clothes (I did not much like the comfort with which he sits in the backseat of the Audi though). Aamir is gagged and has little chance to express. Investment banker Shai, Monica Dogra, the American singer-actor, who has a role in Rock On, is the presenter for Dewarists, and who has her hown rock band in Mumbai, is pretty confident and good. One of those quiet evening, late afternoon views.

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