Film Review: ‘Mumbai Dairies’
A mesmerizing multilayered portrait of one of the world’s great cities.
The city of Mumbai, still called Bombay by many of its denizens, has sat for any number of memorable literary portraits, from Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games to David Gregory Russell’s Shantaram. But Kiran Rao’s Mumbai Diaries is easily one of the most dynamic cinematic portraits of that decaying, vibrant, impossible city ever made; it treats the city itself as a character. Diaries is all the more remarkable because it’s a first feature by Rao, who has worked in the Hindi film industry but had never written or directed a film.
OK, so she has an advantage being married to Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, who is her star and co-producer here. (American audiences might remember him from the Oscar-nominated Lagaan, which he starred in and produced.) But Diaries is no vanity project; it is a fully realized art film with European sensibilities.
The story begins with a woman pointing her video camera out of a taxi into a gray city pelted with rain — we later learn she is a young Muslim bride, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) — and then shifts attention to introduce Hindu artist Arun (Khan), a U.S.-born Indian investment banker, Shai (Monica Dogra), on sabbatical to pursue photography; and Munna (Prateik Babbar), a poor boy with dreams of Bollywood stardom who asks Shai to shoot his head shots.
In the intersection of these four people and one city, Rao locates a host of dreams, desires, fears and tragedies with stories touching on art, photography, poverty, crime and Mumbai’s indelible sense of mystery.
Khan sensibly underplays his role, allowing his noncelebrity cast members to shine: The two female stars, each in her movie debut, are outstanding, delivering nuanced takes on class and worldview. Babbar, with charisma and chiseled looks, is a star in the making.
Cinematographer Tushar Kanti Ray uses formats ranging from Super 16mm to mini DV cam to penetrate Mumbai’s shadows, and Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar-heavy score is non-Indian but a perfect fit for capturing the sad-happy mood of this tumultuous city.
Release date: Friday, Jan. 21 (Los Angeles, New York, India) (UTV)
Cast: Aamir Khan, Monica Dogra, Prateik Babbar, Kriti Malhotra
Writer-director: Kiran Rao
Producers: Aamir Khan, Kiran Rao