The Dhobi Ghat
Dhobi ghat didn’t really sync with my definition of a brilliant film. The directorial debut of Kiran Rao, although promising, doesn’t urge me to stand in a queue to buy a ticket for one of her future projects. Given, it was a good first attempt, given it had misfortunate, almost eccentric characters pulled off the streets of reality, given it tried to intersperse and stitch several psychological layers and even introduce the concept of triangular voyeurism of some kind into the storyline, it still failed to impress me.
Take 1 - The film begins with immediately jolting the typical Bollywood masala-expecting movie goer by introducing its documentary, handheld style camerawork within the first frame. The audience is introduced to an unknown voice belonging to a woman, who is probably the one holding the camera. Her narration and simultaneous video images although addressed to her brother, locate the film into the heart of where the story is going to be set—the city of Mumbai. The voice belongs to a newly married Muslim woman, Yasmin who has just shifted to Mumbai with her husband and feels that the best way of interacting with her brother is by sending him short video clips of her ‘happy’ life in the alien land.
Take 2 - We are then taken into the life of Arun, the not-so-eloquent (at least verbally), painter. Evidently, he is an introvert who lacks the art of mixing with random strangers, unless there is a plausible option of bedding them. A divorcee, Arun spends most of his time divorcing himself from everything that’s around him and mostly dwells in his own world, coloured by his artistic creations. Until one day, he comes across a set of DV tapes (forgotten belongings of the previous tenant) and decides to play them on his television screen. Incidentally, the tapes belong to Yasmin, whose beauty and autobiographic digital letters Arun seems seemingly besotted by. As the days go by, Arun sits with the audience and watches how Yasmin shares intrinsic details about her life with a smile with her brother—from her trips to monuments with her passive husband, to introducing the friendly neighbourhood kamwali bai and her talented daughter to even a poignant image of her cutting a cake alone in front of the camera. In the lone world, all Yasmin has, is her video camera, her sole confidant, through which she can communicate with her brother. Why the DV tapes have been left abandoned, is a question which is answered only towards the end of the film.
Take 3 - After an exhibition-cum-party of his, Arun spends an illustrious night with Shai, a rich, desi NRI, who has recently returned from the United States to pursue her hobby as a photographer. Apart from having an impressive taste in dressing, she also carries an unforgiving annoying accent, which literally made me pull my hair out every time she spoke (especially, in Hindi). Her character seems lost, or rather, misplaced in the film. I am sorry, I am being far too polite: it’s absolutely REDUNDANT! I considered all the pros and cons as to why Kiran Rao would invent a character whose so incorrigibly mindless, and I came to the revelation, that it’s not the fault of the character, it’s the fault of wrong casting. Simply pathetic in acting, Monica Dongra seemed the most unimpressive actor on set. No wait, that was Aamir Khan—but more on that later.
Shai’s character, unlike her name, is anything but ‘shy’. Her sexually vocal and bold character seems unrelentingly strange in Monica Dongra’s skin. Shai defines the rich, brattish 1% population of the entire city of Mumbai, who has enough money (and hence, time) to waste. And although many would stop to ponder to say, “hey no, Shai is a caring and considerate character in the film,” you sir, are abysmally wrong. Her character involves photographing ‘reality’—which in the dictionary of most dim-witted idiots is documenting the life of the Indian poor—eg. ratkillers, dhobi ghats, so on and so forth. She does social service by interacting with a poor dhobi boy and uses him as a tool to reach her ulterior motive—to see/stalk the recipient of her recent infatuation, Arun.
Take 4- Meet Munna, the misfortunate dhobi ghat boy, whose lifelong dream is to become an actor. Working as a dhobi boy for both Shai and Arun, he serves as the conjugation point between the two of them. After reprimanding Munna for discolouring Shai’s shirt, Shai eventually feels guilty. She accidently meets him at a cinema hall and approaches him in a friendly manner. When she learns that Munna knows where her love, Mr. Arun lives, she decides to befriend him, hoping he will help her meet Arun. She decides to help Munna make his modelling portfolio, if he promises to help her take pictures of him at the dhobi ghat, where he works. Munna, taken aback by a beautiful, gori mem’s sudden interest in his personal life, misreads Shai’s bold overtures and begins to fall in love with her, eventually to realise that Shai is not his to begin with.
The concept of voyeurism is artistically implemented in the film. It begins with Yasmin’s recording of herself with the camera, where Arun and the audience are taken deep into her life. Her story is driven by the video letters which Arun watches every day, perhaps as a form of entertainment. As the story unravels, the facade of her ‘happy married life’ begins to crack and with each video letter, Yasmin’s smile seems to smother every word that she speaks. The audience is given an insight into Yasmin’s sense of loneliness as most of her video letters are of her talking alone to the camera. Her smile completely shatters when she confesses to her brother that her husband is having an extra-marital affair, the shock of which she herself cannot hide. In her last letter to her brother, Yasmin indirectly suggests that she is taking her own life, and eventually hangs herself from the dining room fan. Voyuerism as a motif is further extended when Shai quietly visually documents Arun’s movement in his house from an opposite construction building, while he is watching Yasmin’s video.
The film plays on the concept of six degrees, accessing and assessing the lives of four diverse individuals who come together in the city of Mumbai, each one
falling in love, infatuated by the other and eventually realizing a deep sense of loss: Yasmin’s dejection at her husband’s affection/love, Arun’s loss of his muse (which eventually leads him to paint her in art form, thereby immortalizing her), Shai’s realization that Arun is not hers to have and Munna’s dejection at Shai’s pyaar.
On second thought (which occurred to me after I wrote this), the films works on several levels, barring the typical infusion of Bollywood mirch-masala. Although the film aches to be ‘real’, the script seems deranged sometimes—why would a rich, young woman go out for lunch/dinner with her dhobi boy alone, let alone become his chaddi-buddy?—I am aware that it is the 21st century, but transcendence of social circles to such an extreme is trying to really stretch it. Also, has anyone noticed why does Shai talk to Munna sometimes in absolute English and he seems to immediately and almost, efficiently understand it? And I am still not entirely sure as to why Rao popped in the expressionless, eerie old woman into the film.
(C) Radhika Iyengar 2011