Film Review: Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) – Part One

Directed by: Kiran Rao

Starring: Aamir Khan, Monica Dogra, Prateik Babbar, Kriti Malhotra

WARNING: Contains spoilers! The first two paragraphs are spoiler free but if you do not want to know what happens in the film before you see it,  you may wish to revisit the rest of this post after seeing the film. Thanks!

There is something weird about seeing a film before it has had its official release. Furthermore, it is even nicer to have seen it at a proper screening rather than viewing a dodgy downloaded copy or in a cramped preview screening where elbows are sharpened to get good seats or you have to deal with people clapping loudly after a scene so you don’t hear all of the dialogue (as happened in My Name Is Khan). Luckily, I was at the London Film Festival 2010  sitting with a considerate but enthusiastic audience in a packed cinema on a Sunday morning and was very excited. The icing on the cake this time was a Q & A with the director of the film afterwards which just made the screening even more special.

Perhaps because of the excitement and various time constraints, I didn’t get to write a review of Dhobi Ghat immediately after seeing it as I usually do with films but with the film coming up for general release, I decided to try something different – I would write a review on what I remembered and then re-review the film when it goes on general release. (Talk about getting extra credit – if Bollywood had been a subject at school, I would have majored in it without even trying!)

Dhobi Ghat revolves around 4 different people – Arun (Khan), Shai (Dogra), Munna (Babbar) and Yasmin (Malhotra) – an artist, an NRI, a washerman and a young housewife whose lives become linked together as they go through life in Mumbai (a simplified summary I know…but you’ll see why when you see the film!).

I was pleasantly surprised by Dhobi Ghat – on the one hand, I had high expectations from the film but at the same time, I didn’t exactly know what those expectations were. Kiran Rao clearly knows her film inside and out and it felt that every detail had lovingly been crafted and detailed to her specification – it is rare that one sees that in a first film but it is very evident here. I also liked the whimsical nature to the film – this is purely character driven and rather than follow a large story, we follow the characters on their journeys through life. I liked the way Rao brings strands together and the way Mumbai was portrayed – though I have never been fortunate enough to visit the city, it is clear to see that Rao is fond of Mumbai and the city plays the silent fifth character in the film.

Technically, the film reminded me of a mosaic, with a grainy exterior hiding some beautiful collages underneath. I loved the camera sequence when Prateik chases the taxi and I also liked the extreme close ups which made the viewer feel they really are getting to know the characters well. After the screening, as I was leaving, I heard two people discussing the sound of the film (as it was a London Film Festival screening, I assumed they were sound engineers) and they had been unfavourable in their verdict on the sound, saying it must have been how Hindi films “do” sound. It was interesting as a few weeks later, I read on a Bollywood gossip site that the sound mixing had not been completed. Usually, such a comment would have flown over my head as though I am aware when something doesn’t feel technically right (step forward Veer), I thought the sound was fine, and this is something I will be listening out for second time around.

Thematically, I found the observation of relationships more interesting than the class divide (which was shown quite well in form of the disapproving maid). Arun is cold and distant to Shai after sleeping with her (much like the the housewife who sleeps with Munna but then gets jealous of his closeness with Shai) – yet he connects to Yasmin, who wants intimacy and warmth from her husband and is perhaps the most likeable character in the film. I also felt the relationship between Munna and Shai was worked well in every aspect. Styling wise (yes, I am that shallow to notice these things!) I loved Shai’s laidback style, especially the wide legged belted linen trousers she wears. In fact, there is a lot of linen in Dhobi Ghat with Arunwearing simple kurtas and Shai wearing linen separates. I really liked the way the characters mixed ethnic and western wear and it added to the organic feel the film had.

In terms of performances, all of the cast are fantastic. I’ll come to Aamir Khan shortly but first, it was Prateik Babbar who I felt did exceptionally well in the film with an earnest performance, capturing the strength, vulnerability and awkwardness of the dhobi with apparent ease. What really struck me was his natural ability and versatility which he seems to have in abundance. Dhobi Ghat capitalises on the promise that Prateik showed in Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na and I will be following his films closely as he seems to be one to watch. Monica Dogra is brilliant in what was also a natural performance – nothing felt forced or contrived (unless demanded by the film) and I really didn’t believe this was her first film. I like that she seemed uninhibited on camera and caught that NRI vibe really well. Kriti Malhotra also gives an excellent account of herself and is perhaps the character that stays with you long after the film ends – her performance is so effortless and simply executed that at times, it feels more like a documentary rather than drama. I also thought Kriti had the hardest task as she only has monologues but she rises to the challenge and does well.

Now for the amazing Mr Khan – after 3 Idiots, I wondered what avatar we would see Aamir in next and Dhobi Ghat is the perfect follow up, because once again, Aamir gives us something different. Playing a more mature character with urban sensibilities, Aamir becomes Arun with ease and draws us into his world, making the cold hearted artist likeable and watchable. He has an excellent chemistry with all of the cast and I have to confess, I gave a loud gasp when he said the F-word (much like I did when Anil Kapoor swore in Slumdog Millionaire – Mr India gaali bhi dehta hai?) but soon recovered from the shock. What I love about Aamir in this film is that he makes a role like this look easy but in truth, it requires a lot of versatility and talent to be able to pull off an unconventional role on the back of a very popular role (Rancho in 3 Idiots) and Aamir has “it”, whatever “it” may be.

I cannot wait for this film to receive a general release for many reasons – I am eager to see how audiences will perceive the film as well as how it will do at the box office (another shallow point but no one can deny good box office show will be a positive) I want to see it again to see if my first time observations hold true and to see what kind of film  reveals itself on a second viewing. Also, following No One Killed Jessica which seems to have been very well received, this could be something very exciting for Hindi cinema…

Don’t miss Part 2 of my review, coming soon!

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