Despair, dreams and yearning collide in modern-day Mumbai in Kiran Rao’s pleasing debut feature “Dhobi Ghat,” a mosaic of several intersecting lives featuring Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan. Like last year’s “Peepli Live,” “Dhobi Ghat” showcases a unique model of Indian alternative cinema, one that shuns Bollywood’s outsized song-and-dance conventions in favor of realistic stories and characters yet, at the same time, embracing the benefits of Bollywood star power. In this case, the star wattage is provided by box-office top draw Khan. He’s not only one of “Dhobi Ghat’s” lead performers, he also produced the film (“Peepli Live” as well) through his own company.
Writer-Director Rao’s script is founded on romantic obsession, beginning with the crush that investment banker/photographer Shai (Monica Dogra), an Indian-American in Mumbai, develops on brooding painter, Arun (Khan). After their one-night stand following his art opening, the loner Arun tries to distance himself from Shai.
Still smarting from a broken marriage, Arun moves into a new apartment where he finds videotapes left behind by the last tenant. The tapes reveal the video diaries of a lonely woman, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) – shy, newly married but neglected by her husband. Arun watches Yasmin express her yearnings and heartbreak and, slowly, falls for this mystery woman. She galvanizes the depressed Aamir’s creative energies and he initiates a new painting.
Meanwhile, Shai strikes up an unusual friendship with her “dhobi wallah” (laundry boy) Munna (Prateik), a low-class denizen of the Mumbai slums who aspires to be a Bollywood star. Shai agrees to photograph Munna’s headshot portfolio and, before long, she’s accompanying him on trips to the movies, the market, the local café. Munna takes a fancy to the sweet natured Shai, but the latter’s motives are questionable: Arun is one of Munna’s laundry clients as well – a staggering coincidence in a script riddled with them – and we wonder if her friendship with Munna is genuine or a ruse for re-connecting with Arun. Our ambivalence towards Shai provides a compelling undercurrent of tension through much of “Dhobi Ghat.”
When we delve into the realities of Munna’s life – the poverty, the proximity to crime, the lack of dignity – we realize the futility of his holding out any hope of a future with the jet-setting Shai. In fact, one of “Dhobhi Ghat’s” most affecting scenes is one in which Munna makes that sad realization himself, when the unbridgeable rift of class division appears as clearly to him as Shai’s pretty face.
As Munna, Prateik exudes an endearing innocence as well as a sexual charisma that Shai isn’t entirely immune to. He is “Dhobhi Ghat’s” most wrenching character, perhaps because the stakes are highest for him, someone desperate to achieve a piece of the newly minted Indian dream. And Khan, a tad out of place amidst lesser-known talents, works his on-screen chemistry capably as a wounded soul slowly opening up. While Dogra is appealing as Shai, her character lacks the depth and shading without which she often seems spoiled, flighty and heartsick. The same goes for Yasmin; her character may be the film’s heart but it’s also one-note in its innocence and wistfulness.
This lack of character substance is more a symptom of an oblique dramatic tone in “Dhobi Ghat,” its affinity for precious lyricism over unadorned directness. Rao’s film is candid its observations about daily Mumbai life, but it balks in delving deeper into its characters’ hearts. Still, this is a refreshing, well-meaning entry in India’s new brand of globally savvy cinema, and augurs exciting things from both Rao and her peers.
Directed/Written by: Kiran Rao
Cast: Aamir Khan, Prateik, Monica Dogra, Kriti Malhotra