Dhobi Ghaat (Mumbai Diaries), 2010

“My muse, my whore, my beloved!”  That is who Arun, the artist, dedicates his art exhibit to.  But lest you think a person is being referenced here, nay, it is a city.  A city in India christened with such a trifecta of titles could mean only one thing:  it must be the city that never sleeps, i.e., Mumbai, the erstwhile Bombay.  For such is the spell of the city to which legions flock to every day.  With dreams and hopes, they come to Mumbai, and begin the great enterprise of putting foundations under the castles they have built up in the air. 

Craftily made with a fine cast, this is a story of the lives, dreams and hopes of four such persons, each from a different station in life representing the gamut of the social fabric from a well-off investment banker originally from NYC on a sabbatical in Mumbai, to the local dhobiwallah or laundry-man; also, the aforementioned artist Arun who is played by the brilliant Aamir Khan, and a home-bound housewife whose video diaries the artist inadvertently stumbles onto in the flat that he moves in to.  It is these four that offer perspectives on the city as viewed from their unique vantage points.

If there is a glimmer of hope that begins to blossom in the bosom of the dhobiwallah with respect to a possible career in modeling and acting, it is in no small measure aided by the kindness shown to him by Shai, the photographer girl.  Then, there is the artist himself who goes from the brooding-variety to becoming downright glum and gloomy as he begins to unfold the video diary stories of the newly-wed middle-class woman documenting her daily life in the city for her brother back home.  Likewise, there is the banker-photographer woman who seems oblivious to the social class-barriers even as she invites the dhobiwallah over to her flat for coffees and cocktails, all the while fooling herself that her friendship with him is a purely platonic one. 

Such are the lives and times of these four who willfully allow the city to shape their destinies.  Kiran Rao has conceptualized and directed a brilliant script, but has left many a question dangling for the viewer to decipher the answer to– if there are any that may be called satisfactory, that is.  Questions such as whether it is possible to break the glass ceiling of social class and station– in matters of vocation, as also in matters of the heart.  Plus, there is the fascinating and most intriguing theory that every apartment in this city has any number of stories embedded in the walls.  It might be fair to say that even without stumbling onto video-diaries, it is possible to imagine these stories– each one probably as unique as the next.

I regret it took me the better part of a year to catch this movie, especially given the fact that I am a fan of Mr. Khan right from his “Papa kehtein hain” days.  But this belongs as much to him as it does to the other solid protagonist of the story:  Munna, the Dhobiwallah, thanks to whom, the world of the dhobighat is documented with care and sensitivity of the kind that can only come from an outsider looking in, i.e., the NYC-girl, Shia.  Also, not to be discounted by any means, the lonely housewife who makes the videography is to be admired for her mettle and her love of life– before she changes her mind about these things.

High marks for the script, the direction, the acting, and the cinematography that captures everything from the sewer rats in the slums to the torrential monsoons of Mumbai.  Yes, this is one city that is to each one whatever what one wishes to make of it, which is why it is also often fondly referred to as Bombay Meri Jaan, i.e., Bombay is my heart.


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