Disclaimer: Dhobi Ghat is not for those who have 1) no interest in India, 2) have no appreciation for the city and 3) for those who don’t have a connection with Mumbai.
From the get go, Dhobi Ghat spells and smells of debutant director Kiran Rao’s innate love for her favorite city Mumbai. In fact, the film, which has rotated and seen the circuits of international film festivals, is clearly her ode to the city of dreams in India. Naturally, Dhobi Ghat stars Rao’s husband, Aamir Khan but besides hubby darling, the film also houses an array of talent that includes Prateik Babbar, Monica Dogra and Kriti Malhotra. Now, the film may have received rave reviews all over the globe with some standing ovations too, but the real question is simple: will it work with local Desi audiences? For the most part, such films are technically appreciated on a more “intellectual” level, which I have continually claimed is total bullocks. A Hindi film needs to be enjoyed and understood by the masses. Dhobi Ghat is by no means a commercial film despite its popular cast. That said, from the promos, it was evident that the film took its love for Mumbai to a level that is virtually unheard of.
Set in the Dhobi Ghat area of Mumbai, the world’s largest outdoor Laundromat, the film opens up to life of a Dhobi, a local laundry man, Munna (Prateik Babbar). While he makes a living washing clothes, he dreams of becoming an actor and a better living for himself. When he meets Shai (Monica Dogra), he sees a possibility in his aspiration being fulfilled. Defying the normal social divide, Shai befriends Munna as she convinces him to think big. Her western thinking refuses to budge despite constant comments from locals who explain the division between the classes to Shai. While she looks at Munna for sheer company as she fulfills her passion for photography by clicking snaps of him, the latter finds himself falling in love with the foreign return. On the flip side, we are introduced to Arun (Aamir Khan); a new tenant who finds himself obsessed with the ex-tenant Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) after he discovers tapes based on her life floating around the apartment. But above all of these characters lies Mumbai; a character that sits on the sideline and watches each of its residents bask in the joys and sorrows that she provides.
Kiran Rao wows with her personification of the city. You are immediately mesmerized by the city as she takes you to parts of Mumbai that really is beautiful. As a self-proclaimed Bombaywalli, sorry, Mumbaikar, my connection with the film was perhaps more emotional. As a script however, the film doesn’t have the grasp that it should in order to really pull in audiences. Clearly her sensibilities display her disconnect with mainstream cinema and thus, Dhobi Ghat doesn’t become everyone’s cup of tea. That said, her metaphor for the city, i.e. one that is gripping and haunting, old yet contempory, is fantastically portrayed on screen. The direction is par excellence and almost immediately you look forward to her next offering. A clear problem with the film is perhaps the overuse of English. Dhobi Ghat tells the story of hope, dreams, discovering and breaking divides.
The surprise of the film is Prateik Babbar who walks away with the greatest accolades of Dhobi Ghat. His understanding of Munna is profoundly real. Not only that, the newbie actor underplays his character so well, that you are simply left gob smacked and stunned. He is definitely one to watch out for. Unfortunately, Dhobi Ghat is not Aamir Khan at his best. The actor looks lost and confused as Arun until he finally finds the character but only too late. Monica Dogra shows immense potential with her first film. However, there are points where her English seems a bit put on to the extent of becoming annoying. Kriti Malhotra is a revelation. The actress becomes Yasmin. You feel her pain and loneliness. But the award for best performance in Dhobi Ghat goes to the city of Mumbai. She is herself; beautiful, grand and poised yet haunting, daunting and scary.
Dhobi Ghat is meant for Mumbai lovers. For good and bad, Mumbai is what it is: home to millions who adore the city which is covered beautifully by Kiran Rao.