In Dhobi Ghat, written and directed by Kiran Rao, Mumbai city is as much a character as the four protagonists whose lives intersect during the film’s 95 minute running time.
Shai (played by Monica Dogra) is a wealthy NRI investment banker who is in town on a sabbatical from her job, to indulge her passion for photography. She spends the night with brooding artist Arun (played by Aamir Khan), who regrets the one-night stand. But Shai, although hurt, feels like they made a connection. Munna (played by Prateik Babbar) is a dhobi nursing acting ambitions, who agrees to introduce Shai to the city, and ends up with a crush on her. Yasmin (played by Kriti Malhotra) is a young Muslim girl who has moved to Mumbai from a small town in Uttar Pradesh, and is recording video diaries for her brother back home. We only see Yasmin in this recorded footage that Arun stumbles onto and becomes obsessed with.
Unfolding against the city’s bustling geography, these stories reveal an intimate and sometimes unpleasant portrait of Mumbai. The issue of class difference rears its ugly head as Shai and Munna become friends. Lack of privacy is another key theme, as is the migrant experience.
Director Kiran Rao makes some interesting points, but there are a few things that just don’t work. The overuse of coincidence, for one. In a city bursting at the seams, the characters in this film seem to be running into each other just about everywhere. Also, Munna is a dhobi, who works nights as a rat-catcher; at one point it’s even insinuated that he’s sleeping with a housewife possibly for cash. Is there any job this guy doesn’t do? And yet he’s available on call to provide tourist-guide services to Shai.
Arun’s obsession with Yasmin is another tricky area. His curiosity about her life may be understandable given that he appears to have no life of his own, but the reaction to his ultimate discovery about her appears contrived.
To be honest, Arun is the only character in the film that strikes me as awkward. He’s saddled with clunky dialogue, and played uncomfortably by Aamir Khan, who surprisingly comes off as too conscious. Monica Dogra as Shai takes some getting used to, but finds her feet along the way. It’s Kriti Malhotra as Yasmin who strikes the perfect note, and whose haunting influence can be felt long after the film is over. Prateik Babbar as Munna oozes charisma and confidence, and your heart goes out to his character in the end when reality puts a break on his dreams.
Beautifully shot and aided by an evocative background score, “Dhobi Ghat” is occasionally indulgent and moves at a glacial pace. Yet Rao creates some endearing characters, and embraces Mumbai despite its dichotomies. The result is a film that slowly grows on you.
I’m going with three out of five for director Kiran Rao’s “Dhobi Ghat”. If you have an open mind and an appetite for the experimental, take a bite out of this one.