I am pretty sure there will be many Aamir Khan fans who will wrestle for tickets of this movie when it got released a couple of days ago in Malaysia, but many of them will return home not feeling any kind of satisfaction of watching it. But the unique thing about Dhobi Ghat is that Kiran Rao (yes, the director) knows this fact too.
“I know this film won’t appeal to the general audience,” this was what she bluntly put forth when interviewed recently. She already knew the target audience would be connoisseurs of art-house cinema, and that’s why the film has been doing rounds in film festivals ever since its debut in the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF) back in September.
Running at less than 2 hours, Dhobi Ghat is like a chapter from a thick, epic observatory novel called Mumbai Diaries (the film’s alternate English title). Dhobi Ghat isn’t about the entirety of those diaries, but instead just showcases a chapter of the lives of individuals involved in it.
The film is the story of four people: Arun, Shai, Munna, and Yasmin.
Arun (Aamir Khan) is a divorced, lonely introvert painter who had just shifted apartments. At his art exhibition he meets Shai (Monica Dogra), an American investment banker who is on a sabbatical in Mumbai, and has a one-night stand with her. He subsequently explains to her that he has no intention to take the relationship further, and though she concurs, she is smitten by his charm and begins stalking him.
At the same time Shai meets Munna (Prateik Babbar), a dhobi cleaner who does odd jobs to make his ends meet while at the same time aspiring to be an actor. Munna requests Shai to do a portfolio photo shoot for him and she does. He begins to get attracted to her.
At the same time, Arun, in his new apartment, finds some random tapes of a young woman named Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a Muslim woman who has just arrived in Mumbai after her marriage to her city-dwelling husband, who was also the previous tenant in the apartment Arun currently rents. Arun watches every tape that she records in her videocam and later starts to attempt finding her whereabouts.
So, as you can see, this is not a love triangle, instead it’s a square. But here there no rejected proposals, every character has there own fears, their own hesitancy and so on. This is probably the subtlest film you will ever see in the history of Bollywood.
There is also the character of the neighboring aunt of Arun’s , who simply observes and says absolutely nothing- just like Mumbai. To add to that, the story starts when Arun shifts into his new apartment and ends when he shifts out of the apartment to a new place. That’s the thread of the story. It simply tells you what happens in between his shifting from one place to another.
Prateik Babbar, almost a Siddharth look-alike, is brilliant as Munna. He debuted as Genelia’s brother in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, and with this performance, he proves beyond doubt that he is an actor for the future. It’s almost a certainty that producers will line up at his door having been exposed to both his good looks and considerable emoting skills as a slum dweller.
Monica Dogra and Kriti Malhotra are both great finds by Kiran Rao, as they fit their characters seamlessly. Aamir Khan, the ever-reliable actor, once again shows his selection prowess. He hardly speaks in the film (due to his introvert nature), but he leaves behind a telling impact and the only point that triggers you to shed tears in the film is also due to his brilliant emoting when he finds out about Yasmin.
Do not expect to be immersed too much in the film, as the film is as detached as it could get. It simply observes without interfering into the characters, more like documentary. And the only engaging moment arrives when Arun finds out about Yasmin, and the film ends soon after. Kiran Rao has written a script specifically for that purpose and she does exactly that.
For a debutant, she shows abstract maturity that is not seen in many present day directors, and although the financial cinema world would expect her to be more engaging and aggressive with her next attempt, being passive and detached in the way she arranges her sequences requires a craft, a talent of its own, and that is something she definitely has.
Sometimes it’s easier to make a film aggressively and have the characters laugh, smile, shout and cry to tell their emotions rather than making a film using a character’s long stare into an empty space, their hopes, their dismay, their loneliness, their insecurity, their selfishness, the tragedy of being wretched from the inside.
Kiran Rao captures loneliness in a way no-one has ever done prior to her.
If you accept Dhobi Ghat for what it offers, then it is indeed a masterpiece.
For those who could not comprehend these genres of films, there is no disappointment to be taken home with this film.
As confessed by the filmmakers themselves, the film was made on a puny budget by the filmmakers themselves. They did not run the financial risk either. The film was shot entirely in Mumbai- there are no stunt scenes, no song sequences, no expensive studio sets- just Mumbai- and all about it.
The film did not even use huge tripods set up to shoot on location, as it was shot using the guerilla technique (real time, support-off, hands-on shooting on the go).
The question is- what have you got to lose? Open your minds towards a different cinema experience, watch it at least once, and if you don’t like it, just accept that this particular genre is not yours.
There’s nothing to like or dislike about the film, just whether you accept or don’t accept.
As for me, all I would say is I would go to Kiran Rao’s next movie.