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.