Forget the rangy big points. It’s the sculpted small-moment that marks this elegant elegy to Mumbai.
JAN 23, 2011 – JUST WHAT CAN A MOVIE SAY about the roiling metropolis of Mumbai that hasn’t already been said? This must be a quandary similar to the one faced by a conductor asked to present an overfamiliar orchestral work – say, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The instant the strings outline the thunderous four-note motif, the audience begins to anticipate the piece ahead, measure for measure. Possibilities for variations exist – in tempo, in style, in expressiveness – but the magnificent monstrousness of the overall work, the sheer overwhelming size of it all, does not (and cannot) change. But imagine that out of the vast strings section, a solitary cellist were brought to the fore. So too from the woodwinds, percussion and brass sections a single saxophonist, a single timpanist, a single trombonist. And imagine that the rest of the orchestra were silenced. The sounds that emerge from this quartet will never accumulate into a symphony, but from these sad strains you could sense a what-might-have-been, the extrapolation occurring not in front of your eyes but inside your head.
That’s the task Kiran Rao takes up in Dhobi Ghat. With just four players, she attempts to communicate an impression of the teeming symphony that is Mumbai, and she follows the path trodden by recent first-time female filmmakers like Nandita Das and Zoya Akhtar, who, to varying extents in Firaaq and Luck By Chance, chose the well-chiselled vignette over the swollen sequence, the interlocking multiple-strand narrative over a linear and gradually tightening storyline. But unlike those fine films, the elegantly elegiac Dhobi Ghat isn’t constrained by a timeframe (the Gujarat riots) or confined to an ecosystem (the Mumbai film industry). This film’s quartet – who may be representative of the four discrete, open-ended notes we hear in the first snatch of the moody score – consists of Arun (Aamir Khan), Shai (Monica Dogra), Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) and Munna (Prateik Babbar), a tightly connected foursome that sprawls all over the socioeconomic spectrum.
Through his Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein tees, through the Warholian pop-art in his home, and through his reluctant appearance at art soirees (he’s a painter and a self-confessed loner), we’re given to understand that Arun moves in the same circles as Shai, the builder’s daughter and the investment banking consultant and amateur photographer whose position of privilege is never in question. Munna is instantly identified by his tastes (he’s a dhobi, a bodybuilding actor-aspirant who worships Salman Khan) and by his matchbox-sized tenement, and the lonely housewife Yasmin seems to fall somewhere in between – though given the tightness with which she’s often shot, she probably leans more towards Munna’s world than Arun and Shai’s. (When we are introduced to Yasmin, she’s in a car that’s presented like a claustrophobic prison; in contrast, Arun and Shai are frequently observed through medium and long shots, relaxed in their airy, well-appointed environments.) Yasmin, who shoots herself and her surroundings with a video camera, is also the film’s gentle narrator, a stand-in for the director’s rueful observations about Mumbai, the city of impermanence, the city that demands that you sacrifice that which you love the most, the city whose sea breeze is redolent with the desires of millions.
Very often, when filmmakers tilt consciously towards poetry, the film begins to hover in a whimsical never-never-land – but just as, in that first scene with Yasmin, her poetic reverie is abruptly grounded by the reality of street kids clamouring outside the car, and just as Shai’s flighty pretensions of being on a “sabbatical” are punctured by Arun’s smirk, Rao has a way of snapping out dreamy languor and slapping herself to saneness. In this, she’s helped by the semblance of plot points that could have just as easily been treated as melodrama – like the almost-love-triangle between Arun, Munna and Shai, or the more obviously melodramatic contrivance of Arun rediscovering himself through a voice calling out from the past, a vaguely Madhumati-like turn of events that lends the film song we hear at the beginning (and which is noted at the end of this review) a wholly unexpected resonance. And the performers, with the exception of the star at the centre, are perfect – perhaps because the tone is so low-key and his lines are so minimal, Aamir resorts to silent-film acting, and the contrast between his overplaying and the beautiful understatement of his costars is a jarring undertone the film never really shrugs off.
These characters are filled in with the most delicate of brush strokes. Yasmin is identified with visuals of grapes and talk of mangoes and through the magnetic stickers of fruits and vegetables on her fridge. The closed-in Arun appears to be constantly living out of boxes, and bubble wrap appears as essential to his life as furniture. Even the minor characters have their moments. Shai’s Anglo-Indian maidservant frowns (in a fashion familiar to anyone who’s seen the black maid’s disapproval of the black Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) upon her mistress’s closeness to Munna – Shai’s egalitarian ways, reflective of a true outsider who comes from outside India, don’t make sense to her, and one of the film’s funniest moments is when she brings in a tea tray, a china mug for Shai and a glass container for Munna. Rakesh, the real-estate agent who situates Arun in his new flat – and whom we see only once – is subsequently given a splash of colour when Arun calls him after discovering a few things the previous residents seem to have left behind. Over the phone, Arun mentions that there’s a ring, and a pause later, he replies that it’s silver. In that instant, we smile while filling up the gap in the conversation, realising that Rakesh was intrigued by the possibility of gold or even diamonds.
The threads that bind Rao’s quartet are so gossamer-fine, so near-invisible, that the only way get a hold of this material – at first – appears to be to nail down a concrete answer to a concrete question: Just what is this film about? Munna is the one who helps Shai find Arun – once early on; then towards the end – so are we to applaud the labouring class that’s the city’s lifeblood, without which the upper classes would shrivel up and die, unable to reach out and make connections and find creative inspiration? (Arun and Shai prey on Yasmin and Munna, respectively, in order to make their art, and even when Arun sets out to locate someone, the only person he can think of asking for help is the building’s watchman.) Is Dhobi Ghat, therefore, an ode to the oppressed? Or are we to be alerted to the issue that it’s Yasmin, a Muslim woman from UP – an out-of-towner like Shai (from New York) and Munna (from Bihar) and Arun (who appears to be from southern India, given that he is addressed as T Arun and he’s seen visiting a “Madrasi” restaurant) – who, with her video camera, is recording the city’s daily history? Is Dhobi Ghat, hence, an ode to the outsider?
Is the point that they’re all migrants, moving from one city to another, from one house to another, from life to death? Is the point that it’s the women who are shaping our impressions of the city, given that the cameras are wielded by Shai, Yasmin, and, of course, by Kiran Rao? Is Dhobi Ghat after the English-empowered Mumbai, where daughters of maidservants rattle off poems by Tennyson? Is the fact that gangsters play a marginal part of this story an indication – or perhaps a hope – that that Mumbai exists to that extent only in the films of Ram Gopal Varma? Is this yet another clichéd chronicle of haves versus have-nots – and is that why, during that exquisite montage against the backdrop of rain, Arun holds out his glass of whiskey and fills it with water, whereas the same rainwater causes Munna to hold out a mug, in order to contain the leaking from his roof? (The former is an affectation; the latter a survival strategy.) Or is alienation the real theme – the physical distance from close family, the emotional distance between neighbours, and in Munna’s case especially, the toughest-to-bridge distance between reality and dreams?
Rao isn’t telling. If there are Big Thesis Points embedded in Dhobi Ghat, she’s leaving the unearthing to others. And like Sofia Coppola, she’s more interested in sweating the small stuff, sculpting the here and now. She’s not after what happens but how – the gradual (sometimes very gradual; despite the observation that everything in Mumbai happens quickly, this story is very deliberately paced) unfolding of scenelets in a manner that’s sensual and rarely sentimental. (Munna’s nonchalant confession of not missing his family in Bihar, for instance, is milked for laughs, not tears.) There’s so much mood in the frames, so much compassion and feeling, that the awkward plot points (like Shai’s stalking Arun, or Munna’s boy-toy encounter with a society matron, or the needless emphasis on Shai’s father clutching a copy of The Wall Street Journal) are swept away like Yasmin’s writings on the sands of the sea.
We revel, instead, in the myriad moments – Munna, in the first flush of love, leaning outside a bus and feeling the air against his face; Munna, for no particular reason than because he feels like it, sliding down the handrail in a subway; Arun displaying his meticulous obsession as he cleans up an old artifact with a toothbrush or folds table napkins into imperfect origami shapes; the gradual dishevelment of Yasmin as she traverses her tragic trajectory, whispering her secrets into the depths of the sea; the beautiful symmetry in Munna’s first and final meetings with Shai – the first time he almost runs into her car; finally, he runs after her car (and delivers the film’s greatest grace note). And we sense the profound love that Rao invests in her characters. It’s no accident that the film song heard in the opening stretch, the song that defines Rao’s Mumbai, isn’t the robustly cynical Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan but the swoonily romantic Dil tadap tadap ke keh raha hai. Dhobi Ghat is nothing more, and nothing less, than Rao’s minimalistic mash note to the residents of maximum city.
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