Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) -- Film Review

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" and Suketu Mehta’s "Maximum City" to a foreigner’s view in Gregory David Roberts’" Shantaram."

But Kiran Rao’sDhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) is easily one of the most dynamic cinematic portraits of that decaying, vibrant, impossible city ever, a film that considers the city itself as a character and looks closely at how it impacts people from a range of social classes. The film is all the more remarkable since it’s a first feature by Rao, who has worked in the Hindi film industry but never written or directed a film before.

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 may remember him from the Oscar-nominated Lagaan, which he starred in and produced.) But Dhobi Ghat is no vanity project; rather, it is a fully realized art film with European sensibilities that intertwines the stories of four characters from different worlds but the same lonely, overcrowded city.

The film opens Jan. 21 simultaneously in L.A., New York and Indian cities where Khan’s name should attract many sophisticated cineastes.

The story begins with an unknown woman pointing her video camera out of a taxi into a gray city pelted with rain. She narrates what she sees, then strikes up a conversation with the taxi wallah only to discover they both come from the mostly impoverished state of Uttar Pradesh. They are thus typical of so many of Mumbai/Bombay’s teaming masses, poor folks fled to the country’s financial and spiritual capital in hopes of a better life.

It is a while before you learn more about this videographer. Instead, the movie takes up a one-night stand and its aftermath between a talented but emotionally remote Hindu artist Arun (Khan) and an affluent American-born Indian investment banker, Shai (musician Monica Dogra), on sabbatical to pursue her passion, which is photography.

Their morning after ends on a bad note, so the two part company with Arun, assuming he’ll never see the woman again. But Shai is left with a disquieting sense of unfinished business between them.

Her next encounter is with a dhobi wallah, or clothes washer, Munna (Prateik), who messes up a stained blouse. When this is resolved, Munna, a poor boy from the slums with dreams of Bollywood stardom, spots her many cameras and asks if she would shoot the portfolio he’ll need as an actor.

Thus begins an unlikely friendship where the extremely handsome young man shows the newcomer around his city, which she now sees through the dual filters of his eyes and her lenses. Naturally, he falls for her, but she seems blithely unaware not only of the effect she has on him but the inappropriate nature of their relationship in Indian society. (You can certainly see this, however, in the eyes of her maid, one of the film’s many small but significant touches.)

Having to uproot many times due to Mumbai’s short-term tenancy laws, Arun moves into a crumbling flat in the city’s Muslim quarter. There he discovers a video diary left by a previous tenant. Yes, you guessed it: This is the diary of the videographer at the film’s beginning, a young Muslim bride, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), newly relocated to the city.

Arun is mesmerized by the videos and launches a series of paintings based on what he sees in them. As he watches, the naïve but cheerful bride turns into an unhappy, betrayed woman, whose terrible secret he now learns.

In the intersection of these four people and one city, Rao locates a host of dreams, desires, fears and tragedies. Her stories touch on art, photography, poverty, crime and Mumbai’s indelible sense of mystery. In a city where everything is perishable, subject to constant change, four people struggle to send down roots, to discover a sense of belonging. It’s almost a quixotic ambition, but then so is a dhobi dreaming of movie stardom.

Through Arun’s paintings, Shai’s black-and-white photos and Yasmin’s video diary, the movie draws you into the mystery and melancholy that is Mumbai. Each of its characters is vividly sketched yet they are only sketches: You don’t fully grasp any of them. Their lives and personalities remain partially hidden.

So it is with Mumbai itself. Its secrets hide in shadows while the drama of its boisterous street life and torrential rains forever distract citizens and visitors alike. Mumbai is a formidable force in the lives of all these characters, holding out hopes and fantasies but willing to dash them in a twinkling.

Khan sensibly underplays his role, which not only befits a reclusive artist but also allows his non-celebrity fellow cast members to shine. The two female stars, each in her movie debut, are outstanding, delivering nuanced performances that subtly situate each in terms of class, background and worldview. Prateik is a star in the making. His chiseled looks and charismatic personality nicely convey the dilemma of a shy, poorly educated, acutely self-conscious slum boy overwhelmed by the friendship of a worldly beauty.

Cinematographer Tushar Kanti Ray uses multiple formats ranging from super-16mm to mini DV cam to penetrate, however briefly, Mumbai’s shadows. The gaze is hopeful but realistic — the city is always changing even as some things never change. Oscar-winning Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar-heavy score is non-Indian yet a perfect fit for catching the sad-happy mood of this tumultuous city.

Opens: Jan. 21 in Los Angeles, New York, India (UTV)
Cast: Aamir Khan, Monica Dogra, Prateik, Kriti Malhotra
Director-screenwriter: Kiran Rao
Producers: Aamir Khan, Kiran Rao
Executive producer: B. Shrinivas Rao
Director of photography: Tushar Kanti Ray
Production designer: Manisha Khandelwal
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Costume designer: Isha Ahluwalia, Darshan Jalan
Editor: Nishant Radhakrishnan
No rating, 102 minutes