Friday, January 21, 2011

The Dhobi Ghat Review

Some Bollywood films boast definite punchlines, while others capture a mood or offer up an open-ended slice of life. Dhobi Ghat hits the sweet spot. 

This film is a triumph. It is nothing short of a slam-dunk for cineastes, romantics, and Mumbaiphiles. Dhobi Ghat is gorgeous, bittersweet, tender and transcendent. It doesn’t reveal its writhing agony until the final act - it's risky material for a first-time director, but Kiran Rao’s involving screenplay and her remarkably assured handling of the material somehow brings it all together into an effective, charmingly offbeat whole. Rao sustains a lyrical, moving tone all the way to the film’s satisfactory ending, and invests a great deal in every scene - the power of even the briefest of human interactions and the fall-out of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are communicated with depth and economy. This is Rao’s audacious ode to Mumbai - a dark place where intense sadness and closure co-exist side by side. Pain resurfaces, and though washed in redemption, it still demands a sacrifice.  

With grey shots of a rain-soaked Marine Drive, Rao begins on slightly shaky ground, but once she settles in, she gradually twists the fabric of her film into something moving, deep and sophisticated. Dhobi Ghat explores an array of timely and time-tested themes such as infidelity, grief, loneliness, racism, immigration. There is beautiful imagery - most fine are those scenes that strive to capture the swooningly mysterious, grungy atmosphere that's endeared so many to Mumbai. The film is rooted in the relationship between four people, as well as between those people and their milieu. Atmosphere and mood are-a-plenty as we see Munna (Prateik) taking a bath near the railway tracks outside his chawl, Arun (Aamir) painting in torrid rain to the backdrop of Siddeshwari Devi and Begum Akhtar, Munna and Shai (Monica Dogra) strolling along the yellow gaslit Mohammad Ali road. Examinations of varying degrees of compassion accumulate through many of the scenes until it infects the film as a whole. With plot threads about people jilted, married, or about-to-be-divorced, about relationships about to begin or that could have been, Dhobi Ghat movingly weaves a quilt of optimistic humanism. If there is a recurring theme, it's the power of love, or perhaps the endless possibilities of the city. What is amazing is how each sub-plot of Dhobi Ghat involves you in the plight of characters you identify with and resolves their predicaments in a devastating manner. There is a scene where a character repeatedly tries to inscribe letters on a sandy beach, only to see the waves wipe them away  each time - of all such segments that comprise the film, it comes the closest to depicting honestly what it feels like to fall helplessly in love. 

Dhobi Ghat ends on an unexpectedly wistful note (though it could also be hopeful, depending on your perspective). It's not sexy or stylish or glamorous or any of the things you might assume Mumbai to be after watching such horrendous films as OUATIM or Life in a Metro. 

Problems? Yes there are a few - as a singular essay on Mumbai, the film doesn't quite succeed because the vision behind it isn't unified. Instead, it achieves success sheerly through the talent involved.  What you're left with is somewhat disjointed and only as satisfactory as the quality of the plot shards that agree with you. It's like having the sample plate at a restaurant - it never feels quite like a real meal, yet can be delicious just the same. A generous critic might try to conclude that Aamir’s English is, in fact, intended to reflect a virulent strain of urban Mumbaiyya lingo. Shockingly, it’s not, and it comes off as jarring and unconvincing. Regardless, it's a bitter piece of dessert with which to conclude Dhobi Ghat's assortment of trifles.  Shame, because Aamir’s eyes can communicate in five minutes what most Bollywood actors couldn't do in half-an-hour. Interstitial shots of Aamir painting don't add much and veer dangerously close to saccharine.   

While too fleeting in grace to be a truly great film, Dhobi Ghat does however reward the hope offered with this prestigious cast and crew. Both Prateik and Monica Dogra are excellent finds - and these two are given the space to win us over gently.  Prateik in particular is marvelously subtle as the young Bihari immigrant dhobiwala who moonlights as a wannabe actor and a gigolo. Kriti Malhotra is excellent as a hapless wife of exquisite complexity, as her character grows increasingly crucial to the film's emotive punch.  Director Kiran Rao communicates the understated despair of average individuals with poignancy, humor, and sympathy. It's amazing how much depth was drawn from quick character sketches and how deftly they worked my emotions with simple performances and the film’s ingenious narrative. Watch.