Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dhobi Ghat

The last time I reviewed an Aamir Khan film, it was the first post on this blog.  The film was Rang De Basanti, an over-the-top, uber-masala bollywood blockbuster that I enjoyed tremendously.  If there is an antithesis to Rang De Basanti, it must be Dhobi Ghat.

All aspects of the film from the writing to the cinematography, the acting and the editing eschew Bollywood norms.  The drama in the film is not propelled along by 'powerful' lines, intense camerawork or urgent editing.  The stories are allowed to unfold at their own pace and have the unevenness and ragged edges of real life. The one cardinal error in the film is casting Aamir Khan as one of the four protagonists of the film.  Not only is he unable to cast away his superstar persona and get in the skin of the mercurial loner-painter that he plays, his acting is without finesse and overly loud in this otherwise quiet film.  It is by no means a terrible performance, but it just doesn't fit.

The film tells the story of four individuals in the city of Mumbai, all immigrants in one way or the other.  The characters have only the amount of depth required for the story to be convincing, but this is not a critical failing, as the acting performances of both Kriti Malhotra as Yasmin, the muslim woman from UP, and Monica Dogra, as Shai, a parsi investment banker from New York are utterly believable.   Prateik as Zoheb/Munna, an aspiring model/actor is somewhat inconsistent but mostly excellent.  

The plot employs coincidences and chance-encounters in abundance and if you aren't already seduced by the film, you may feel hard done by, but the film had already sucked me in so I was willing to be indulgent.  The equations between the characters are delicate and finely crafted.  The easy camaraderie between Shai and Munna, punctuated by the unselfconscious selfishness of the investment banker and the alternating eagerness and propriety of the dhobi boy, is some beautiful storytelling.

The film's subtitle 'Mumbai Diaries' was obviously a canny attempt to market the film as a 'Mumbai' film as they seem to have a currency all of their own.  Dhobhi Ghat is not a Mumbai film.  Mumbai never rises above anything more than mere backdrop. It creates the context for these immigrant lives to collide, but so could any other city that welcomes immigrants.  Aamir's toast to the immigrants of Mumbai in the opening sequences is perhaps an (unnecessary) attempt to drive this aspect of the film home.

The other recurring theme of the film is the visual medium, whether it is Shai's photography, Aamir's painting or Yasmin's videography.  It's a theme that is just out there and open to interpretation, but it is an interesting interplay and adds substance to the story.  The rain also plays a bit-part in the film.  As drink-mixer, home-intruder, intimacy-creator and general mischief-maker it plays more of a role in the film than Mumbai does.

This is a film that you enjoy during the 95 minutes that you watch it in the hall and in the time that you spend thinking about it and pondering the director's intentions and ideas with regard to the characters and their relationships.  It allows the viewer to fill in blanks and extend storylines and imagine some of the off-screen action.  Gustavo Santaolalla's soundtrack and Tushar Kanti Ray's cinematography complement the mood of the film perfectly and make Dhobi Ghat, Aamir Khan excepted, a consistent and enjoyable whole.

If I had to give a score I'd give this film 7.8/10.