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unlike the standard Bollywood “star vehicle”; so insignificant is Aamir Khan the star here that he could have easily been replaced by a character actor and “Dhobi Ghat” would have lost none of its appeal.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.