Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 23, 2011 7:01 pm 
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Prateik in Dhobi Ghat: Mumbai Diaries

Beyond Bollywood

Here is good news for tired viewers of Bollywood movies. Except that Dhobi Ghat is hardly a Bollywood movie at all. But it was shot in Bombay, where Bollywood lies, and was produced by and co-stars one of the biggest of Bollywood personalities, Aamir Khan, who happens to be the husband of debutante director and experienced producer and A.D. Kiran Rao. Dhobi Ghat may not be a great film, but it's an intriguing change from the usual run of loud, badly acted, over-the-top Indian productions we've had lately, which haven't even been leavened by the presence of the kind of traditional catchy song-and-dance numbers Danny Boyle wove into the closing credits of Slumdog Millionaire. This film has pretensions of sophistication and depth that it doesn't entirely fulfill. But it gives its actors, three of them up-and-coming and interesting, a chance at realistic acting, and it is a visual and aural love song to the city of Bombay enhanced, in an international touch, by a deftly restrained soundtrack provided by the Argentinian Gustavo Santaolalla, who won Oscars for his music for Babel and Brokeback Mountain.

Dhobi Ghat has a perspective that self-consciously crosses boundaries of class and culture. Its main character is Shai (musician Monica Dogra), the privileged daughter of a Bombay real estate magnate who was raised in the States and works as an investment banker in New York. She has come to Bombay on an extended sabbatical to explore local labor through her passion for photography, and after a one-night-stand with a posh middle-aged artist called Arun (Aamir Khan) whom she meets at his art opening, she remains fascinated with him, a feeling frustrated by Arun's pouty morning-after behavior, which forestalls any follow-up.

Shai finds a welcome distraction in Munna (Prateik Babbar, billed here simply as Prateik), a shy, very attractive young dhobi or washer-man who happens to do laundry both for her father and for Arun. The Americanized Shai ignores the family maid's warning that Munna is "worthless," and treats him as a friend. He soon becomes totally enamored of her, but his class-consciousness and great admiration make him keep hands off. He sees Shai's raft of expensive cameras and asks her to do publicity shots of him: he wants to become a film actor and has cutouts of his idol, Salman Khan, plastered on his wall. (Here art imitates life because Prateik's riveting performance in this movie is turning him into a headliner.) She does the shots, including some with his shirt off. Handsome, charismatic and buff, he obviously has the makings of Bollywood stardom. Though Shai evidently prefers the older Arun, even if he's not available, what exactly she feels toward Munna is left frustratingly unclear. In exchange for the publicity shots Shai has Munna take her on an extended tour of poor, working class Bombay, beginning with Dhobi Ghat, the huge traditional open-air hand washing site where he plies his trade, and moving on to the traditional Mohammed Ali markets, photographing streets and people and Munna at work.

Following Munna through to delivery of his laundry to a client, Shai discovers that for one middle-aged female client he has in the past provided more personal services along with starch in the dhoti. But he quickly rushes Shai out of this lady's flat. Throughout everything Munna is the soul of modesty, shyness, and eagerness.

Meanwhile Arun moves to new digs in a poor part of town and becomes immersed in videotape "letters" left behind by a young Muslim wife recently arrived from the vast, mostly impoverished state of Uttar Pradesh, whose naive delight in life and in the big city inspires him to do new work, though when he moves through letters one, two, and three these films-within-the film (part of which served as a prologue) take an increasingly sad turn as Yasmin Noor (Kriti Malhotra) discovers that her husband looks on her as little more than chattel. While visually celebrating the city and its human richness, with a suite of gorgeous black-and-white stills of the market ostensibly shot by Shai, and her own rather crude video diary in earlier segments, the story hops between the abodes of Arun, Shai's father, and Munna, who lives in a tiny room with his seedy brother Samir (Danish Hussain), who's involved in gambling and drug dealing. There are other family members who pop up later, and Shai is shocked to discover Munna engaged in an even more lowly nocturnal job.

Malhotra is touching and sad and real as the eager wife overcome by growing despair, Dogra is vivacious and blithely sexy as the well-meaning Americanized "NRI," Non Resident Indian interloper who partly speaks the language, but misses the cultural signals, and Prateik becomes the heart of the piece, its strength and weakness, because he pulses with convincing life in his every scene, but there's something both inarticulate and unformed about him that reflects the film's own unresolved quality. He is a physical actor who is both beefy and delicate. Two of his typically fine moments come when he is tempted to hold hands with Shai at a movie and to kiss her when she falls asleep, but each time he holds back. Aamir Khan seems a bit out of place in his low-keyed role (the casting a family matter, perhaps also deemed a plus for box office purposes), most awkwardly so in his overwrought early scenes. At the end, there is tragedy, but nothing is resolved. The class issues are at once too complex and too brutal for the slightly wan and clichéd plot structure of interlocking relationships and multiple artistic aspirations. This isn't a silly musical, but it's not Satyajit Ray either. But Rao has made good use of a modern bag of tricks. In this 21st-century media-dominated world everybody has a camera or poses for one, and the stills, hand-held camerawork, Super 16 and mini-DV, multiple video tracks, Leica M6 and rich sound design show a sophisticated sense of the photogenic ugly-beautiful richness of the great city, the way its vibrancy is tinged with mystery and melancholy. Rao has Arun call Mumbai/Bombay "my muse, my whore, my beloved” and the film itself has the same enthusiasm.

The film debuted at Toronto. It opened in India, NYC/LA and the Bay Area January 21, 2011.

The India Today review was enthusiastic.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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