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.
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?
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.