Dhobi ghat, looking for a new centre

Publié le 10 Novembre 2011


Dhobi ghat (Kiran Rao, 2010) is a pleasant enough film to watch; it has a seductiveness, an allusiveness whose charm lasts a while in the mind, and one wonders, after the last unfulfilled pictures have gone, what was this? What sort of movie did I watch? Surely, not a classic Bollywood flick, not a social manifesto, so perhaps an arty evocation of a changing society? A meditation on the new reality India is going through? One could also say, an emerging director’s state of the art research. Kiran Rao, Aamir Khan’s second wife, is here busy demonstrating she’s got the guts to go it alone, after her spectacular successes as assistant director in such blockbusters as Laagan and Swades. Do I sense in her attempt that same superiority complex that always slightly bothers me in Aamir Khan’s dos? The feeling that here is a guy who is about to show what India filmmakers have forgotten all along: Indian cinema isn’t only for Indians, but for the world, it is worthy of an attention justified by its artistic complexity and human depth. The only trouble in this demonstration of artistic value is precisely the demonstration: artistic worth doesn’t need demonstration: if it’s worthwhile, you see it directly. And Indian cinema as a tradition contains enough resources for any filmmaker to create superior art if he or she wishes. This idea to look away from your tradition, and do things according to the assumption that a worldwide attention will be given to projects inspired by other aesthetic principles than our own: I wonder if any lasting good can come out of it.


What I’m saying might sound paradoxical: because the movie’s subject is 100% Mumbaite; the city, its streets, shops, beaches, its lights, smells, noises, its highs and lows; the characters, except for Shai (Monica Dogra) who’s a bank clerk NRI on leave from her work and who’s busy photographing the city for some project of hers. She’s the pretext outsider, and her little accent betrays the director’s need for her exterior point of view. She’s the benevolent eye of the world, a motley, already half indianised world, so to speak. And there she goes, clicking away at people, capturing them in her frames, artistically transforming them just like the film does. One guy, a dhobiwalla called Munna – Prateik Babbar - falls in her trap (or she entraps him, if you want) and believes she can get him into the movies. This happens after she had first fallen for Arun (our one and unique Aamir Khan), a moody painter who’s still affected by his recent divorce and finds a new inspiration from some video tapes of his new flat previous owner, left in a box with the furniture in the flat.


But Shai’s interest in Arun cannot break his shell, and she drifts away from him. Not too far though, because the tide of emotionality soon brings her back to him, even though in the meantime she’s started to appreciate Munna… One has to admit that this intertwining of interests, love or business, is cleverly woven, and very suggestive of the complexity of human feelings when desires, hopes, frustration and pain all interact. A person’s life is never one story only: it has several levels, it takes place on several planes, and this is especially true perhaps of urban lives, where the interactions are more numerous. So I’d say this is where the film pleased me most: one follows these lives very simply, the narration is fluid and convincing. The camera work too, even if sometimes it’s overly conscious of itself.

opening your eyes

We discover Munna’s underworld, ie, his involvement with the drug-dealing, violent sub-urban reality which so many films have made us familiar with. We feel the slight hovering hush of danger surrounding the young woman as she naively steps into areas forbidden to the likes of her. And it’s rather good too that the film doesn’t conclude, emotionally speaking. There is no happy end, no relief. But then, is there a message? Is there a story worthy to be learnt? What is the film’s relationship with reality, and which reality? Dhobi ghat left me wondering about the situation in which Indian cinema has placed itself in. Where can it go, what should it do? How can it reflect the tremendous changes the country is going through, and suggest some elements of meaning to this change? Perhaps we need such films, as landmarks which later will reveal themselves as necessary intermediary links between one form and another, or they will just be considered as worthless cranking by camera-happy people without a plan?

looking for meaning

I was uncertain of the answer, so I went on IMDb, and well, what I found is my impression multiplied by the dozens of people who also thought, sometimes kindly, sometimes less, that the film was on the whole a waste of time. Hmm, but sometimes you do have to waste time to find inspiration, you do have to mill around before the spark ignites. You put yourself in the centre of things (Mumbai) and you open your eyes, perhaps some flash of meaning will come from this, perhaps some structure will emerge. An artist has moments of emptiness similar to this soul-searching attitude. But there is also a non-negligible chance that it is sterile, and that one has simply gotten side-tracked. The old woman who lives in the basement in Arun’s building, and whom we see sitting on the side of her bed so powerless, stands out for me as a sort of symbol of the film: for me she represents an ageing Mother India that Arun’s desperate efforts have not yet been able to revive. She can also be looked upon as the unused and inefficient Indian artistic tradition which sits, speechless and incomprehensible, waiting for her new interpreter.

old woman

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Bollywood Talk

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<br /> Yves, while I was finishing watching this film 20 minutes ago, I kept thinking "I must go see what Yves had written about it", because I remembered you'd reviewed it. An interesting review, and I<br /> liked the way you brought out the fact that perhaps Kiran Rao is using a non-traditional (alien? 'smart'? 'progressive'?) way of making a film. Yes, not typical of Hindi cinema at all, but and I<br /> can understand why a lot of people (I've just looked at the IMDB page too!) didn't like it. On the other hand, the cinematography was great, and the videographed story of Yasmin really drew me<br /> in. She was wonderful. <br />
<br /> <br /> Hello Madhu,<br /> <br /> <br /> Yes, I quite agree with you, there is definitely something wonderful about Dhobi Ghat, I remember the movie with a great fondness, which certainly comes from its quiet cinematography. I couldn't<br /> really fit in Aamir's part though, and for me it shows there's something still in the making in the movie, it's looking for a style, which I hope will surface soon. I would like modernity to<br /> create something new in Indian cinema, not just a westernized product!<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
<br /> <br /> Nice write-up on Indian cinema andthe film Dhobi-Ghat. I haven't seen the film, that is why I can't comment much upon it.<br /> <br /> <br /> That is why I liked the similie of Mother India, Indian cinema and tradition and theold lady in the house.<br /> <br /> <br /> I like this metaphor. And this old lady has surely always been influenced by many traditions and cultures. That is why I think a film like Dhobi-Ghat is nothingnew for her and suits her fine. She<br /> has experienced so much in der life, that this film is jsut but a moment in her momentous life. Thus it is not only nothing strange for her, it in fact suits her!<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
<br /> <br /> Yes, and unless it's been done before, you could perhaps do a series on "Mother India impersonations in Indian films": there would be lots to say, I'm sure.<br /> <br /> <br /> thanks, yves<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
<br /> <br /> That's a nice review Yves. You have expressed a number of my own unexpressed thoughts. My biggest criticism of the film is that I did not - I could not - get emotionally involved at all. And this<br /> from a person who is known to cringe when Jerry gets at Tom !! Its a third-person view, the camera watches rather than sees. And for me, that's not enough. <br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
<br /> <br /> Hmm, yes, well put Suja, you're right, the film doesn't emote a lot indeed. This is especially true of Shai, who manages to keep her cool throughout and in fact also for Arun, whom I thought was<br /> rather well played by Aamir Khan (the acting was good on the whole). He's at a distance, everything is at a distance in this film. I've got Peepli Live which Kiran Rao was also involved in (but<br /> as producer), I'll try and give it a try soon.<br /> <br /> <br /> thanks for your message!<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
<br /> <br /> I think many viewers went away with the feeling that it was pretentious - I liked the movie, flaws and all, simply because I thought Kiran was being honest to her sensibilities. And while one may<br /> think that she is deliberately moving away from our traditional style of film-making, I would say that she represents the new India - the one which has more western sensibilities; the educated,<br /> urban, elite, if you will. Whose exposure to world cinema also reflects in their choice of subjects to film or act in. And funnily enough, while everyone went ape over Prateik Babbar, I thought<br /> it was Aamir Khan who did a wonderful job of disappearing into his Arun. And full marks to Kiran Rao for achieving that.<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
<br /> <br /> Yes you're right, there's this honesty in the film; and certainly it isn't doing anything wrong, but I wonder if this is right way to go about in search for inspiration. I mean, we've seen a<br /> number of these movies and plays, read a number of these novels, where a few people's lives are being woven together to try and create a pattern, but it's very hard to finally emerge with<br /> something truly creative. I wonder if this technique isn't a kind of trendy recipe, if you see what I mean.<br /> <br /> <br /> cheers<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
<br /> <br /> Excellent review. I haven't seen the film, but I know exactly what you are talking about. I think the end of your article, the idea about an artistic 'Mother India' waiting for a voice, was<br /> superb.<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
<br /> <br /> Thanks Banno for your message, the film is worth watching, in spite of its experimental dimension. If you do watch it, come back and tell me what you thought!<br /> <br /> <br /> yves<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />