TIFF Special: “Dhobi Ghat is like poetry on film”

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Normally when I see a movie, the critic in me is immediately ready to find a computer, open Microsoft Word and let the words flow from my brain to my fingertips to the screen. But it’s been three days since I’ve seen Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat and I still can’t fully understand how or why it affected me. It’s the kind of film that seeps into you slowly and silently, without your awareness.

It would have been so easy for Rao to make the kind of film that Aamir Khan’s wife would be expected to make. After all, he’s one of the biggest stars in India and despite his presence, this isn’t the Aamir Khan film you’d expect. Khan plays one of four central characters, whose lives are each woven into the intricate fabric of Mumbai.

Rao’s love for Mumbai is visibly apparent in her debut film, which truly is a stark love letter to India’s city of dreams. It’s set to an exquisite soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel) and delicately captured by cinematographer Tushar Kanti Ray. Dhobi Ghat acts as a showcase for Mumbai, flaws and all, and it’s this intense honesty that is the film’s trump card. There is no better way to reach your audience than to tell a film with honesty.

She weaves the story of four Mumbaikers who have all taken from the city and given a piece of themselves in return. Shai (Monica Dogra) is an NRI who comes to Mumbai to pursue her passion for photography with little focus and understanding of the dynamics of the city. Her path crosses briefly with Arun (Aamir Khan), a reclusive painter who pushes her away the moment they begin to get close. The two are connected by their dhobi, Munna (Prateik Babbar), who toils away with the hopes of becoming an actor. Dhobi Ghat is the story of two individuals finding inspiration in the most unlikely places, using creativity as a medium to find themselves in a city that promises “to give and take in equal measure” (Cameron Bailey, TIFF 2010).

In the Indian film industry, there is a false perception that anything that isn’t your quintessential song-and-dance masala film must be one of those films that audiences generally hate and critics love. I disagree. Not all films that claim to be “different” are good. In fact, no matter what type of film you are looking at, there will always be good films and bad films.

Rao’s Dhobi Ghat is a genuinely good film, if not great. It’s so rare to come across directors (in any country!) who almost seem to give a piece of their soul to their films to make them truly unique. When you see Dhobi Ghat you will realize that Rao has made the film exactly the way she wanted to. This film has been made with tons of heart, and not the cheesy kind. It’s truly moving.

She knows her characters inside out and nothing seems fake or artificial (except for Monica Dogra, unfortunately. More on that later). It’s not necessarily a plot-driven film, but driven by its characters, which in my humble opinion is the best kind of film because it mirrors the complexity of real life. The nuances within the film, like the old woman who lives next to Arun, or even Munna’s coy affection for Shai, are captured with a raw sensitivity that is a rarity in cinema which is essentially all about creating exotic (and sometime escapist) worlds. Rao leaves all her characters to interpretation rather than spoon-feeding the viewer. As she slowly unwraps their layers, the film reaches a climax whose impact lies in its subtlety.

Mark my works, Dhobi Ghat will be Prateik Babbar’s well-deserved breakthrough role. The entire audience cheered when his name appeared in the credits, and he received a standing ovation at the film’s premiere. Babbar is an actor who hasn’t been groomed by the film industry and it’s this rawness that makes him so incredibly endearing. Khan is excellent, as usual, but we’ve come to expect that. He plays his part well, but allows Babbar and Rao to shoulder the film.

It’s unfortunate that Monica Dogra’s performance in the film is really the film’s most glaring flaw. She starts off extremely shaky, with poor dialogue delivery that hinders the realistic tone of the film, but eventually comes into her own by the end of the film. Still, you can’t help but think that another actress could have taken this role to a different level. Kriti Malhotra, in a much shorter role, outshines her.

The film has several moments that stay with you for days, and since the film doesn’t release until early 2011, I don’t want to spoil them. But I think it’s safe to say that here is another film from Aamir Khan Productions that is different from what audiences are used to but should be admired for its sheer honesty and creativity.

The ultimate purpose for rating a film is to advise audiences on how good a film is, and since Dhobi Ghat is so far from its release, I’m going to refrain from labelling it with a star rating out of five that I think often takes the essence out of a review.

Aamir Khan Productions has been extremely honest and told audiences not to expect a commercial potboiler in Dhobi Ghat, and they are absolutely right. In fact, don’t even expect a satire like Peepli [Live]. Dhobi Ghat is a quiet film that is unlikely to stir controversy or break box office records.

The film will be a landmark for Prateik Babbar, who stands apart from the Ranbir Kapoor’s and Imran Khan’s of Gen-X. Like his late mother, he possesses an enchanting quality that is quite hard to pinpoint exactly. In Kiran Rao, India can prepare to welcome a uniquely gifted writer, whose debut film is full of strength and conviction. It’s like poetry on film.

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