Dhobi Ghat—the Review

65 Comments

As the end credits of “Dhobi Ghat” rolled, I felt……. happy.

For two reasons.

One was on seeing an A-lister taking a risk with his brand-name, headlining something that was unapologetically “niche”, with Kiran Rao the director, not once, pandering to the dictats of popular taste. This I believe is worth congratulating considering Aamir Khan’s contemporaries (they shall remain nameless) who lack the courage to step outside their commercially successful zones for even a wee bit.

Even more importantly, after a long time, I could say that a Hindi movie left me satisfied.

“Dhobi Ghat” is very visual, almost as if director Kiran Rao is painting on a large canvass, lazily moving her directorial brush, with the wet colors, like Mumbai rains, dripping down, creating their own paths, coalescing for brief moments into shapes before moving away once again.  She is not just painting, but also standing back and observing languidly, an action that is reflected in self-absorbed artist Arun (played by Aamir Khan) surveying his own work. It is these moments of quiet contemplation that are Dhobi Ghat’s greatest flourishes, almost as if Kiran Rao is taking us on the scenic route and unlike some other guides, she will let you stand and appreciate the beauty of what is in front of you, without jostling you to the next destination.

Given the immensely visual nature of “Dhobi Ghat”, it is not surprising that one protagonist is an artist, another a photographer and another a lonely newly-wed making a video-mail to send to her brother. In their way, each of these characters capture a slice of Mumbai, with their visions colored by their own emotional states and by their identities—in terms of class, gender and personal history. Through this multi-perspective view, Mumbai becomes a fascinating tapestry of travellers (all the characters are “outsiders”) all looking for something—— be it fame, love, happiness or solitude. And yet it is perhaps the heartlessness of the city that for each character, this “something” remains hypnotically alluring but never truly attainable.

Performance-wise, “Dhobi Ghat” is absolutely a director’s movie. Aamir Khan, despite the huge name, is merely a daub of color, never allowed to blot out the other shapes. As a matter of fact, this is very unlike the standard Bollywood “star vehicle”; so insignificant is Aamir Khan the star here that he could have easily been replaced by a character actor and “Dhobi Ghat” would have lost none of its appeal. And this is one of the movie’s greatest strengths since Kiran Rao never tries, not even once, to give the audience what they expect from an Aamir Khan starrer.

Commercially of course, this kind of intransigence has worked to its detriment. Its  film studentish, art-house look and feel is understandably off-putting for people buying a ticket with set expectations of conventional entertainment. For instance, there is a lot of puzzlement about this old lady the characters observe in the flat next to Arun, who sits silently and even when spoken to does not speak but yet maintains eye-contact. Unless you are the film-school type, you will scarcely recognize that the lady there represents a “watcher”, a device used most famously by Krzysztof Kieslowski in his “Dekalog” series, a similar sequence of vignettes of life in a Polish apartment complex which also had a “watcher”, a man who silently observes each character. This “watcher” is explained as an angel who is “pure gaze”, able to “record human folly and suffering but unable to alter the course of the lives they witness.” [from Annette Insdorf’s book on Kieslowski, quoted by Ebert here], which perhaps here represents the spirit of Mumbai itself.

So be warned. “Dhobi Ghat” has neither the pulp activism of  “Rang De Basanti” nor the frothy feel-good of “Three Idiots”.  Instead, like the city it worships,  it is open-ended, complex and somewhat bewildering.

And I am thankful for that.

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65 thoughts on “Dhobi Ghat—the Review

  1. Blame it on my bong mentality of “West is the best”, but the movie looked and felt like a poor, film-school copy of Alehandro Innaritu Gonzalej’s “Love is a Bitch”.

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  3. Never saw a movie which was so engaging… One of the best ode to a city … Even I was confused about the ‘watcher’ character…. Why was she there ? But thanks to you , now I know and infact appreciate her significance in the movie…

  4. @labor_day_sale … Really ??? Amores Perros and Dhobi Ghat ??? you just had to write something … hence the comment or did you actually mean it ???

    Where s the similarity ?

  5. @GB,
    was just wondering, do you get chance to watch bengali movies? Some of the recent ones has been pretty good, and would have loved your thoughts on them

  6. AG,

    No I don’t. The last Bengali movie I saw was Adimripu. Liked it except the whole transplant of the movie to post-independence times. The climax had to be on independence day to make the required impact..I felt.

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  8. I loved the movie too!! and loved it more because it did not really worry about whether the audience will like it or not, and whether it fits their mindset or not! It was so very different and not-loud, that it was refreshing!

  9. I also loved the fact that the movie didn’t, at any point, try to become commercial and was genuine in its attempt to weave a story around the city. Particularly loved the last scene. Gorgeous film. And this is a great great review, Arnab. You say the simplest of things in the best of words. And I am thankful for that :))

  10. Loved your review. It would be wonderful if you could provide additional input on the performances of other actors in the film. I’m hoping that Prateik Babbar shows the potential to carry forward the thespian genes of his great mother.

  11. “Dhobi Ghat” is very visual, almost as if director Kiran Rao is painting on a large canvass, lazily moving her directorial brush, with the wet colors, like Mumbai rains, dripping down, creating their own paths, coalescing for brief moments into shapes before moving away once again. She is not just painting, but also standing back and observing languidly, an action that is reflected in self-absorbed artist Arun (played by Aamir Khan) surveying his own work”

    Beautiful.

  12. quite vivid ..that omagination of yours ..which was busy decoding whar kiran rao had to say through those home videos and the bland script .perhaps you have a harvard upbringing which saw u through the film.. we chappies are only medium public school educated medical professionals and trmendously disliked this amateurish effort from amir khan ,,perhaps that is why most of the shows went empty

  13. @Sudipta and Mystic Margarita,

    I enjoyed Prateik’s work but as I said in the review, this is one movie where I personally felt that the performances, competent as they are all around, take a back-seat to the director’s vision.

    @Meenu,

    Never been to Harvard, a place where incidentally Kareena Kapoor did a “three month” course in micro-computers. I guess enough time for her to get the “micro” part.

  14. “And this is one of the movie’s greatest strengths since Kiran Rao never tries, not even once, to give the audience what they expect from an Aamir Khan starrer.”

    i completely agree
    watched the movie last week and felt it is something that not many directors will risk. ie making the movie exactly as they want. loved the movie… liked your review.. but then i like your takes on “rgv ki aag” sort of movies even more

  15. I liked it too. As expected, reactions have been extreme & mixed. In addition to the movie, kudos to Aamir & UTV for convincing theatres to screen this without an interval …though Big Cinemas pulled a fast one by showing all those ads before the movie began (almost 30m after the scheduled time). It is also interesting to read so many different people with their own interpretations of various things through the movie.

  16. The movie is just about average..IMO.And thanx for that watcher thing.Dint know that.its a mood film with every single cliche, every single shot of Bombay that has been seen umpteen times.

  17. The movie was essentially dull, something which could have been made into a 40 mins art student kinds but not a full 90 mins saga.
    The characters except for camera wielding lady – were a little too plastic to be identified with.

    Kiran Rao should be commended for her balls to stay consistent with her ‘vision’ but personally speaking that vision doesnt account to much, this was way too self indulgent.Mumbai in rains, Mumbai of ganesh visarjans, Mumbai of Marine Drives Mumbai of Mohd Ali road during Ramzan – she ticked off everything she personally liked about Mumbai didnt she – she forgot add a lil more script and character depth to the script.For me Satya and Black Friday covered the same ‘visual’ scope of Mumbai and were much much better …

    @GB :- From what i can gather You like this movie mainly because Amir Khan was not made to do his usual antics – fair enough he was a pleasant change compared to the eyebrow stretcihng antics that he does in his blockbusters.But that alone merits this movie to be good ? Illa ! Besides AK is smart enough to know what to throw at his audience next – this act just about save his ‘thinking’ actor image ….but Ak isnt a nasseer and his acting scope has always been very very limited.

    ps-> Is it only me or did someone else notice this too – the prateik babbar character going to a south mumbai Multiplex with two mod looking chicks muching popcorns…WTF was that

  18. GB, agree the movies good. Have you seen any of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu’s work like Amores Perros? Isn’t the movie making style of Dhobi Ghat exactly the same as AGI’s? Kiran Rao/Aamir khan went a step ahead than getting just inspired when having an Argentine music director giving scores for a Mumbai centric movie. Well am a movie fanatic and can’t help but feel touch disapp’ed with the resemblance in movie making style! Thoughts?

  19. Beautiful review … straight from the heart. Hope the movie lives up to the expectations u have created, since i m gonna watch it only coz i read ur review 🙂

  20. from one Mithun fan to another…..did you get a chance to watch Shukno Lanka? Would love to read your thoughts on that piece.

  21. I think the movie falls short of expectations (not the masala ones ofcourse- the real ones that were expected from it. We all knew it was arthouse cinema). KR and AK fall prey to their “intellectual” image and go overboard. Perhaps the best inter-mingling of stories in Hindi movies has been done in ‘Life in a metro’. While its not really logical to compare the 2 movies, i felt the entry and exit of characters in DG was abrupt at many points.

    KR makes a good bold attempt no doubt. But I agree with Dhruva above. Its more a student proj of 40 min than a 90 min movie.

  22. First @Dhruv: It’s very very common in Bombay for people who are not ‘dirt poor’ to stay in slums or chawls. You will very often find people coming out of Dharavi or Andheri slums who are dressed in pretty modern clothes and who have the wherewithal to go to a multiplex at times. I found the dhobi character to be very authentic. People like that actually exist. When I used to live in Malad, the local chaiwala in front of my complex used to work nights as a sweeper in the railway station, and he once took his family out on holiday to Goa. So it’s not really as wtf as you think.

    @GB: I found your review very apt. I found your comparison of the movie to a painting an interesting one. Never thought of it that way. Also, I did not know about the ‘watcher’ concept. Read about it just now, and will catch the Dekalog series.

    Also, wanted to know if you noticed this – in the initial party scene, there is a place where Shai tells Arun that she came for a sabbatical to India, and Arun asks ‘Why ?’. Just the one word. It was an amazing way he asked it, and it reminded me of ‘Patol Babu Film Star’ where he takes so much pride in the one word he has to say. It’s a fleeting moment in the movie, but for some reason it has stuck in my head.

  23. I loved the review, almost as arty as the attempted artsie movie from Kiran Rao.. I loved the way you have equated the movie with a painting and Aruns stepping back metaphor.. well said.
    To me the movie had some brilliant sparks.. the characterization of Munna (the Dobhi), yes the way Arun asks Why (^well noted soham), interplay between Yasmeen and Arun, super visuals! Can someone tell me who was done the black & white stills.

    The complex nuances and interplay between Arun and Yasmeen was evocative; yet Aruns character was far too stereotypical – he smokes, drank scotch (or single malt), listened to Thumri and painted. I wish script writers do not use stereotypes to sketch the characters.

    I feel educated with the ‘watcher’ concept, but that by itself doesn’t mean much if doesn’t touch sensibilities of target segment. Also thrown in was the conversation with Munna & the mid aged lady in her bedroom – i wonder why was that needed to be thrown in. To add the greys to the character perhaps, but it looked contrived to me at places, – almost as if an effort has been made to weave it together. Nonetheless much though the visuals were cliche, it appealed to my visual hungry mind and loved the frames, the way the camera moved and the languid pace. I hope Kiran Rao, ups the game and does better than this next time.

  24. Aamir was good. For me, his best dialogue was in the same scene Soham & Mayank spoke of earlier. When Shai tells him that she’s taken a break to get some fresh air, he goes “and you expect to get that in Mumbai?” with a smirk to boot. It was refreshing not to have all the humorous bits not underlined by background music.

  25. Could someone explain this to me ? When Shai stumbles upon Munna in the dark, he beating some animals, why does he run away ? Why was be beating animals ? Didnt get that part.

  26. kudos to kiran rao for … by having 4 love stories and none of whom are a success – a bold defiance against the classic Bollywood ritual of getting two good looking people to marry and feel all self-congratulatory about it …

    you are right … it is infact a director’s movie … in fact it is a art-movie and a movie on art … 🙂

  27. Couldn’t agree more. I watched the movie alone as nobody wanted to come with me.
    My favourite part of the movie was the differen human reactions that the movie displayed to various sitations thorughout ……. The movie “spoke” much more than the dialoges did.

  28. @GB
    This I believe is worth congratulating considering Aamir Khan’s contemporaries (they shall remain nameless)
    It is sad but true for you. whenever anyone would write the history of Bollywood unbiasedly first 3 start’s will be Dilip kumar(1950-70), Amitabh Bachchan (1970-90) and Shahrukh(a person whom you hate so much 1990-2010)
    1- Dilip Kumar- Because he was the face of Nehruivan Socialism.
    2- Amitabh- Because he was the face of dissidence againast the systen in system in seventies.
    3- SRK- Because he was the face of changing india after libralisation and globalisation

  29. The mov was just abt avg. There was nt much depth to the characters..moreover there wer too many coincidences or chance meeting of characters..

  30. I agree with Kanchan Gupta (http://in.movies.yahoo.com/movies/Dhobi-Ghat/reviewdetails-1214.html):

    the concept of a story is that it should lead you somewhere. Or these accidental meetings (as shown in this movie) should atleast transform either of the characters consequently in some way. Even clothes in a washing machine appear different after twirling around for a while. Moral of this non-story: when life gives you a dhobi, serve him tea in your cup and if you’re a rich and lonely hag, make him your dirty laundry.

    Also, despite being a big Aamir Khan fan, I have to admit that there are some scenes in this film where he tries too hard (unlike the Aamir in RDB or TZP) to “act”

  31. The movie is visually apealing but the stories themselves are left to interpretations. They are like the Arun’s paintings with eachone entitled to draw their own view and motivations behined them. What is undoubtedly true is that it is very engrossing and does not let your attention get away even for a minute.

  32. WoW!! Three things u got spot on man…
    “unapologetically “niche”, with Kiran Rao the director, not once, pandering to the dictats of popular taste”
    “It is these moments of quiet contemplation that are Dhobi Ghat’s greatest flourishes, almost as if Kiran Rao is taking us on the scenic route and unlike some other guides, she will let you stand and appreciate the beauty of what is in front of you, without jostling you to the next destination.”
    “represents a “watcher”, a device used most famously by Krzysztof Kieslowski in his “Dekalog” series,”

    My 2 cents on the movie:

    I went in expecting a lot from this movie. The promos were slick and the music was intensely intriguing. For the better part of the movie, I marveled! How many times does it happen that Aamir Khan’s role is on par in terms of definition and his performance is on par in terms of sheer acting prowess with the rest of the characters in the movie? Great character definition is making you forget, even for that tiny instant, that they are merely actors doing their jobs. And Dhobi Ghat has those moments galore! IMHO, Prateik Babbar and Monica Dogra outshine even Aamir with their poignant performances!

    The camera work is beautifully refreshing, and I am not just comparing it with Bollywood fare. It captures Mumbai, the scheduled chaos, the merging of extremities and its soul, so beautifully, that it even makes a fraud Mumbaiite like me, yearn to go back to the madness.

    At the end, I left immensely happy, to have added Kiran Rao to my watch-list of can-be-legendary directors, who can make movies worth getting lost into, worth sharing it over your favorite poison, with people who understand life as well as they understand you.

  33. @ritika, pratyush
    thanks for the info !! rat killer by night ? didnt know that was a profession. The ending was abrupt, or maybe i am just not looking at it with the right perspective.

    Totally agree with GB that actors take a backseat and its an outright directors movie. The comparision of the old lady to a watching angel is brilliant interpretation. Good one there !!

  34. Movie was good. But, I thought the subject would have been more apt for a 13-episode television show. I would have talked about the previous night episode the next day and also eagerly waited for the next one.

  35. i saw the movie with full concentration, so as to like it and appreciate it since the reviews were pretty good..

    surprisingly, i didn’t like it. its an art movie not made to please anyone’s senses is fine, but there was only one thing that made the movie worth it – the married lady shooting the videos…that lady was so real and her videos somewhere portrayed kiran rao’s love for the city, the way she had seen it, without making any apologies for liking it that way…the art house feel of it, capturing beauty in the most mundane things of the city… beautiful!

    apart from her the characters were run of the mill stuff and very hard to empathize with! it seemed all of them were put in with the videos so as to make a movie cos her ‘love for the city’ video will not find viewers! even the characters’ lives were joined by such a frail string…and why was that US gal so smitten with that painter?? and y she loved hanging out with a dhobi ( i get it she dint believe in class discrimination), but seriously??

    abrupt is apt for the ending, n the lump in throat feeling is because of the pretentious way the movie was made – no one cannot but appreciate art movies, else they supposedly don’t have the artist touch to appreciate art films!

  36. Usually when people say what a great hindi movie, they are referring to the story or screen play or performances. This one seems to be a real directorial effort. Very rare in hindi cinema.

  37. Watched the movie – encouraged by your review – and liked it.
    For a first-timer, Rao showed exquisite eye for details.
    Santaolalla’s scores were most intriguing. Actors, emotive.
    Thanks!

  38. While it is exalted to celebrate the acumen of the debutant director and eulogize her grit in refusing to pander to popular taste, I wish she had showed similar consideration for her audience for what she was doling out to it. I will agree that the movie is really well made and deserves a round of approving nods, at best, but definitely not one of applause.

    When you leave the theater and reflect on what you are taking away, perhaps an emotional upheaval, a subliminal message, an inciting observation, or an intellectual/moral quandary at least I drew a blank. Perhaps the visual imagery or the breathtaking camera-work was too subtle or too banal for us Mumbaikars and in any case I watch National Geographic on TV.

    It was a movie that taunted and tantalized but never culminated.

  39. Arnab,

    Loved the movie. And yes, ‘satisfied’ is what I too felt at the end of the movie. But I could have never put together the feelings (as a viewer) as well as you have put. Amazing post. Almost every line of your post spoke something which I was struggling to express.

  40. I loved the film. Being from Mumbai – it was a lot more personal to me. A lot of Kiran’s strokes show a deep understanding of Mumbai. Like the part of people sitting on marine drive and talking to the sea – confiding their secrets – every true mumbaikar has done that at some point. The city’s rain singing people to sleep – every one who has spent monsoons in Mumbai has slept to their lullaby.

    Mumbai is complex – the exact reasons why its people love it so much is hard to capture, its different for each person. But one thing is sure, once you belong to Mumbai, you don’t belong to anywhere else as completely. You can hate it – you can fight it – but its an unbreakable bond. I missed Mumbai so much after this film.

    And yes, the subtlety of Kiran’s scenes ( think chai in the glass and cup, depicting discrimination – Shai’s instinctive reaction to Munna’s topless visual, Arun shai and munna in the same crowd but not noticing one other – well it goes on ) it captures that complexity well.

    Overall a multidimensional film – immensely talented director of photography – and a pure work of art.

  41. @Dhruva :: The multiplex scene in fact says a lot more – but you have to read between the lines. Its uncool to explain it – but I will try.

    Its saying – Munna aspires to live high class be the best of mumbai – everyones does – its saying he can do this because he sleeps with rich women – may be you didn’t pick that up – its actually pushing you to have moral conflicts – feel disgusted at munna selling his body – but then also admire that despite the means he needs to resort to – washing clothes, killing rats, perhaps even sleeping for money – hasn’t polluted his vision and his sense of integrity – he is not dishonest nor a pervert – he feels the natural urge to kiss Shai – but doesn’t – and in the end his affection for Shai is pure – which is why he runs all the way to the cab and gives her Amir’s address.

    Read between the lines dude – this movie is filled with immense meaning.

  42. The sub-story of Yasmin in the movie was actually quite sad. Really well made movie I must say.

    GreatBong, if you can, please check out the movies of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming Liang which deal with urban alienation. You may appreciate it.

  43. Saw this movie and have to agree that in the end it gave a feeling of happiness. The movie was about moments and characters and thats what it did so well.

    1. had a great fear of Amir messing up the cast but i can say he probably played the part very very well. Got the bumbling social awkwardness down to the pat.

    2. Monica Dogra and Prateik were just great. Both normal looking actors but their emotions and depth of characters making them so much more attractive. You could totally fall in love with Shai or Munna for the intensity in thier eyes.

    3. Kriti Malhotra’s hindi and her face speaks volumes. she is a potential star in the making.

    4. Kiran Rao finally has to take all the credit and this is truly her movie and she has really carried it all to the end without any slip.

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