Kiran Rao’s film aptly called “Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Dairies)” reveals itself in a series of personal documentations of a city that strides revolting opulence and abject poverty. Shai, an investment banker from NYC on a research sabbatical, is on a mission to discover Mumbai with the help of her very fancy photography equipment. She befriends Munna the dhobi for her family’s plush Mumbai home. Munna, an immigrant from Bihar, while trepidatiously falling in love with Shai, navigates her through the intestines of Mumbai: Nagpada, Mohammad Ali Road and of course the dhobi ghat. Shai’s black and white photographs are one set of diary entries about the city.
Shai also meets Arun, a tormented, reclusive painter who is also searching Mumbai for what makes sense as he puts the city and its people on canvas. He moves into an old ramshackle apartment on Mohammad Ali Road and finds a small box left behind by the previous tenant of the apartment. Among other things, the box contains a series of video letters by Yasmin Noor: an immigrant bride from Malihabad in Uttar Pradesh. Yasmin’s amateur videos about what she sees around her in this strange big city offer a counterpoint to Shai’s photographs and become another set of diary entries. The third set of documentation is by Arun who struggles to understand the space around him and reacts by retreating into himself. He finds a way out of himself and into the heart of his apartment and his city through Yasmin’s video letters. Like Munna shows Shai around, Yasmin becomes Arun’s guide. Arun begins to inhabit and paint Yasmin’s city and this is perhaps the most quietly reflecting, beautiful and moving part of the film.
It is hard to imagine the possibility of a meaningful encounter between a young burka clad bride from a small town in UP and an elite, reclusive artist in Mumbai but as Arun watches Yasmin’s videos and listens to her, he (and the audience) begin to connect to her deeply and intimately. The very spaces and people that were available to Arun all along: his apartment, the family that lives in the house across the street, the silent neighbor across the hall, the passionate Mumbai rains, all begin to resonate with significance once Yasmin mediates the experience for him. Arun synthesizes her experiences with his own and starts painting this new found sense of palpable absent presence. Art sublimates a social relationship that would otherwise seem quite impossible.
While the other characters are searching, explaining, mediating and documenting Mumbai, Munna lives in the city less self-consciously. As a result he is the most conscious of the city’s precariousness and is finally the most vulnerable to it. In his leaky shack by the train tracks, he builds his body, covers up for his friend who is mixed up with the gangs and he dreams of becoming an actor. He is the un-acknowledged connection between the Mumbai’s rich people. He is that which Shai is trying to understand and for whom Arun is painting tributes. While he is disarmingly present and obvious, he is also inscrutable. While the others are documenting the city; he embodies the city.
“Dhobi Ghat” is a beautifully told story that turns no cheap tricks. It is pretty much a slowly gathering mood film, like Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” (2000). The cinematography is stunning. The film is a visual treat. There is not a single song in the film but there is a haunting soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla with some parts that definitely sound like Ram Sampat’s contribution (he was in the acknowledgements). Kriti Malhotra’s debut as Yasmin Noor is certainly the heart and soul of the film. Kiran Rao’s direction even managed to keep Amir Khan restrained in his role. There is a subtle sense of humor just beneath the surface of the film and Prateik Babbar’s T-shirts are a big part of it. It took me a bit to warm up to Monica Dogra as Shai but she pulled it together before long. How Kittu Gidwani can continue to look so hot is a mystery, but I’ll live with it.
Kabir Khan’s film “New York” is Bollywood’s attempt to come to grips with the post 9/11 perceptions and constructions of terror and terrorists. The target audience for “New York” is the NRI population in the US and the privileged population of the metros in India. And the film taps into what it imagines they want. What they want, apparently, is to be white in a white America.
It all starts with a very white looking Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh), a Muslim boy from Delhi, who comes to New York as student and becomes friends with two second generation Indian American students – a Muslim boy who goes by the name of Sam (John Abraham) and mostly only hangs out with non-south Asians and Maya (Katrina Kaif) who lovingly bitches about Sam in the first half of the film and marries him in the second, thus breaking our Omar’s heart. But before life gets really complicated by the revelation that Maya is in love with Sam and the events of 9/11/2001, the trio is a merry band that hangs out in Central Park to a background of songs about youth, love and friendship.
Then the twin towers go down and terror suspects are detained and tortured by the FBI under the Patriot Act, one of the suspects is Sam- Sameer Sheikh. And here is where the film states its brief: torture is bad and inhuman especially when it is inflicted on suspects who are actually innocent; the American policy of torture and suspicion makes terrorists out of people who were not terrorists to begin with. Sam is going to be our case study for this thesis. Having had his spirit broken and dignity taken away, Sam gets in touch with “them”. “They” are already terrorists and we are not told anything about “them” except that “they” give Sam a way to take revenge and get his dignity back. So begins the double life of Sam, who lives the “American dream” life by day with a very white looking family that only eats pasta, drinks white wine and plays baseball for fun and by night he runs a “sleeper cell” that is plotting a big terror revenge.
FBI, which sports a new South Asian face – Roshan (Irfaan Khan) – gets wind of it, of course. And instead of rounding up Sam Sheikh and doing what they usually do, the South Asian Muslim FBI agent has an elaborate covert plan. He recruits Omar to sabotage Sam’s plan by falsely accusing and detaining Omar as a terror suspect. Omar can buy his freedom by spying on his old college friend which will help the FBI to foil a terror attack.
Omar is not a terrorist and he is righteous. He questions his use by the FBI in this manner and is reluctant to betray an old friend. It is in the response to his fledgling critique of the manifest, all pervasive power of the state and its machinery that film really exposes its location in the status quo preserving morality, and in the desire for assimilation into the whiteness of America. The good Muslim enforcer of the law explains to the reluctant good Muslim – nothing justifies terror (unless it is perpetrated by the State of course), and no one really is to blame for the Muslims who have gone astray; they made bad decisions in a bad situation. But the bad Muslims are giving Islam a bad name and it is up to the good Muslims to fix it. So Omar does the good Muslim thing and stops Sam from doing the thing that he planned meticulously for five years to get his dignity back — blowing up the FBI building. In the process of course both Sam and Maya are killed by the orders of the white FBI agent even as Sam was actually surrendering.
Six months later, Omar is at a baseball game where Sam and Maya’s son Danyal, played by a white kid, is hitting the ball like a pro when Roshan (now decorated and commended) returns to make peace with Omar- the pawn he used to checkmate the terrorist. Omar is upset that his friends were killed and wants to know what good came of it, after all Sam only planned an attack; he didn’t do anything and Maya was totally innocent. To which Irfan Khan points to Danyal being cheered by his team mates and says: now it is possible for a Muslim boy to be hoisted on the shoulders of America and be cheered as American – all white, goes without saying. It is time, he continues, that we forget about 9/11 and all the other injustices and move on. A new trio moves on, kicking golden fall leaves in the park, towards a pasta lunch.
In other words, “New York” is a staggering disaster because it takes on some serious and important issues and treats them with an understanding so shallow that it does disservice to the causes that it claims to uphold. Its critique of torture is subsumed and justified in the FBI agent’s overwhelming rationalization for the structure of the state. Its analysis of terrorism – as something that the state creates – does not go beyond the reading of one man’s personal vendetta against the FBI. Its vision of integration and assimilation is the scriptwriter’s unreal nationalist fantasy of a completely white America. Its message about how to deal with the memory of 9/11 and its consequence is to forget about it and move on. Besides, the acting is terrible and most of the film is shot in Philly pretending to be New York. The Hindi film industry has a long and healthy tradition of not shying away from critiquing dominant structures of inequity and dragging the state to the cleaners. Films like “Maachis”, “Roja” and “Dil Se” did a much better job of analyzing how the state / nation is responsible for what becomes terrorism. So “New York” has really no excuse for such a shoddy job. Its problem is it wants to uphold the state that it critiques because it wants so badly to be a part of the dominant majority.