Dhobi Ghat finally makes its theatrical run in India and the rest of the world, having travelled through the film circuit the last few months after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere. Written and directed by Kiran Rao, the wife of Bollywood's Aamir Khan, Dhobi Ghat is quite unlike the typical masala film, without the signature song and dance sequences, and having a runtime that's more "conventional", although no less epic in its storytelling, involving a handful of strong characters and the relationship links that they share in a snapshot of their lives in the city of Mumbai.
Singapore too had her very own "Dhoby Ghaut" many, many decades ago in the area sharing the same namesake where malls and a train station now stand. With what can be seen from this film in its capture of the Dhobi area, perhaps that was how ours could have looked like back then, with the colours stemming from various fabrics laid out to wash and dry, and the hardworking, sun-kissed men who are constantly hard at work with that sense of professionalism and pride in their jobs, where mistakes are taken back and then corrected without a qualm.
Kiran Rao's film tackles different narrative threads with characters who intertwine in one another's lives. After an introductory scene in a cab which cements this as quite the unconventional fare from the usual Hindi masala films, the first star that comes on screen is Aamir Khan, who after two blockbusters Ghajini and 3 Idiots have toned it down tremendously, playing Arun the painter, a recluse of sorts seeking out new accommodation to move into. Here his story dwells on drawing inspiration from his surroundings, and the bulk of his narrative deals with his viewing of some video tapes left behind by the previous tenant of his new abode.
The second track is of course that of Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) the previous tenant, whose story is told on a different timeline and scale, unravelling itself through Arun's viewing of collective segments in her videos, meant to be sent to her brother to tell of her new married life in Mumbai. Like the other stories in Dhobi Ghat, this segment also takes on the responsibility of showcasing the lesser seen parts of the big city without succumbing to touristy feel good shots , and in some ways one of the most harrowing of the tales, where little is seen or said since most of it involves Yasmin speaking to camera, but much can be drawn upon.
And of course the glue to keep almost everything together is Munna (Prateik Babbar), the dhobi who plies his trade amongst the well to do, or the lazy bums as I term it, in outsourcing their laundry chores. Munna serves as the glue between the tales involving Arun, and that of Shai (Monica Dogra), a non resident Indian whose profession is by way of an investment banking consultant type, in Mumbai for her sabbatical and dabbling in her photography hobby. Needless to say a romantic triangle gets played out between the trio, one that's hesitant and none too forthcoming, plagued by issues of compatibility.
Which brings us to the none too subtle takes on the class divide, since the subplot deals with the potential budding romantic angle between Munna and Shai. I may have missed or misinterpreted this, but I suppose there's some significance in serving a drink in either a mug or a class. Then there's the stark contrast between the haves and the have nots, with one seeking out the other for recreational drugs, and the constant ribbing on Munna by peers that Shai is never compatible because of his lower social standing. But as Kiran Rao paints it, it's always a possibility for something beautiful to happen, if one can put aside having to look through baseless prejudice. The characters are obviously aware of this stumbling block, and this struggle is part of what makes this film hopeful.
Blessed with a wonderful cast with that star in Aamir Khan (so strong is his presence that a smoking warning has to come up before the movie begin to warn of its hazards - his character is rarely without a cigarette), it is in fact Prateik Babbar who steals everyone's thunder as the charming Munna, a simple man living in simple conditions but possessing a great heart and a giant dream. I'm sure like most wannabes in Mumbai, he too seeks an opportunity to try and break into the film industry, having Shai assist him by building up a portfolio. In what I think will be real life mimicking the one on reel, Prateik has the charisma to take on leading man roles, and I wonder if his career, obviously boosted by his heartfelt performance in Dhobi Ghat, will take off in more mainstream fares, or go through the more art house, independent route.
Kiran Rao pays tribute to the city of Mumbai and its inhabitants, and for someone who hasn't been to the city yet, one can catch a glimpse of every day life apart from the glamourous parts already seen in many other films, for something real and down to earth, helped by beautiful cinematography that captures the look, feel and mood of characters and the environment. It challenges the conventions and preconceived notions of what and how a Hindi film should be. It's a brilliant film by debutant standards, and it will be of interest to see how both Kiran Rao and Prateik Babbar's careers move on from here. Recommended!