Movies are a big part of weekend planning. Realistically, what else is there to do in Mumbai? Let’s not go into the notions of what a ‘happening’ city this is. I’ve been active on the cultural circuit for the past year and a half and gone to everything I could find. Poetry slams, Open mics, music gigs, stand-up comedy, workshops, book readings, board game meets…to my utter disgust, all I found was the same frenzied networking, the same desperate need to be cool, the same petty politicking and hard-nosed business dealings, in place of any real interest in the event/field or depth of thought. I’ve struggled with this but had to conclude that Mumbai lets you make a living, not a life.
Dhobi Ghat, Kiran Rao’s directorial debut was this weekend’s big feature. It started on a less-than-pleasant note. Considering that movies are the only standard entertainment available and the skyrocketing multiplex prices, I tend to frequent the second-tier theatres that are still ‘safe’ for a woman to go to alone but cheaper. Moviestar Goregaon was my pick. We entered about ten minutes before the start of the show, when the lights were still on, which is probably why the filthy seats caught our notice. I don’t mean a broken armrest or an undone stitch on the upholstery. I mean filthy, godaloneknows what black, smelly, gunky-goo streaked across all the seats that we could find. The manager was apologetic enough but there were no cleaner seats available and so we had our tickets refunded. While on this, I must add that the theater is now under BIG cinemas which to me, means that service levels can only plummet. My past experiences show that Fame Adlabs, also part of the same group, offers rude staff, smelly (and bedbug-infested) seats and stale food for its high prices. I bid goodbye to another of my budget alternatives. The boy was most appalled at the fact that the other theatergoers streamed in, blindly (and deafly) made their way around us and arranged themselves comfortably in those same filthy seats, even as we pointed them out to the staff. Mumbai, you could redefine the laws of robotics.
We managed to finally catch the movie at 24 Karat, another theatre down the road and I was glad we’d persisted. After the kind of tortures that Bollywood has been visiting on our senses lately (Sheila Kejwani, anyone?), it was a real pleasure to not have to shield my eyes and ears.
A number of things stand out about the movie. Firstly, there isn’t one concrete plot. What there are, are a number of strong, well-etched characters and the little (and big) incidents that constitute their lives. Secondly, the absence of background music is noticeable. Most Bollywood films use music to cue the audience into the mood of the scene, sometimes excessively. Dhobi Ghat, in comparison, is understated, stark and disorienting because it doesn’t offer any such hints, preferring instead to let the audience figure it out for itself. It’s hard to tell whether you’re supposed to laugh at Zohaib’s poker-faced filmdom dreams or empathize with them. It’s tricky to deciding whether Shai’s pursuit of Arun (and parallel ignorance of Zohaib’s attention) is pathetic or natural. You’re not sure whether to dislike Arun or admire him. And thus we respond to the characters just the way we would to people in real life. With confusion, with warmth, with respect and then derision, with conflicting emotions.
It seems counter-intuitive but its not, that when the viewer is given so much to think about, even deeper levels make themselves visible. I liked how Dhobi Ghat effectively portrays that Mumbaikers blur the social order but don’t quite erase it. Economic classes, gender barriers, cultural divides are bridged and broken in mysterious ways. Most of us flit in and out of the periphery with a comfort that sometimes baffles outsiders. Interactions happen in that twilight zone as so relationships – odd, indefinable and yet deeply intimate ones like those of fellow train-passengers, bais & dhobis & house madams and people who occupy the same flat at different times.
Prateek Babbar (underutilized in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na) steals the show with a poker face arranged around brooding-animated-wry-resigned-intense-pragmatic eyes. A hundred emotions flit across his face in a single look over a brun maska. And most impressively, his very silhouette seems to evolve over the course of the movie, starting with an awkward, blurred look to a more resolute, defined profile at the end of the movie. I don’t know if that’s good acting or good cinematography; I’m willing to bet on both.
Kriti Malhotra comes in second in terms of her performance as the anonymous face in a series of video-letters. She’s spontaneous, realistic and her voice washes over you with as much familiarity as the neighbor’s.
I was the least impressed with Monica Dogra. Considering the footage she has in the movie, (the promos say it’s four people’s stories but she seems to be around the most), she doesn’t stand out much, except as a moderately pretty face. Interestingly, her act is what made me think that Dhobi Ghat may have made a good movie but it would be a great book. The characters are wonderfully created and the script is taut. Beyond that, it falls to the people who don the roles to bring them to life and I’m afraid Monica as Shai, just didn’t do it for me.
As always, I checked what Meetu had to say before watching the movie. This time, I don’t quite agree with her, when she says that the movie could have very well been set in New York or London or even Pune. Dhobi Ghat doesn’t just pay lip service to standard Mumbai iconography like trains and movies. It snaps up an accurate slice of Mumbai life, from its crowded chaos jostling with glitzy glamour to the near schizophrenic behavior that these contrasts seem to bring out in the city’s occupants.
I started this post talking about the robotic behaviour of Mumbaikers but I also speak for the tangible, prideful emotion that we carry collectively. A city is no more than a group of human beings, after all. And I’d like to think that the unique situations that this group finds itself in, day in and day out, makes us uniquely who we are. Dhobi Ghat seems to agree.
If you love Mumbai, this is definitely for you. If you’re appalled by it and there’s still room for an explanation, maybe this movie will give you one.