Kiran Rao’s directorial debut Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) is a poetry on cinematic canvas which runs on European sensibilities, it intertwines four characters in an overcrowded yet lonely city – Mumbai. This has to be one of the significant films in Indian Cinema portraying Mumbai with its due hues and tints, previously, the city has been seen through the gangster world while Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi (1993), Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988), Anurag Basu’s Life In A Metro (2007) were a handful which dwelled into different zones, roots of urbanisation (sprouting slums) and cosmopolitan lives. Post-Dhobi Ghat, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) is an important film which dealt with melancholy as well as the spirit of Mumbai in its realistic aspect.
The lives of 4 different people in the city of Mumbai get entwined by fate and luck; Shai – an investment banker with a penchant for photography, Arun – a lonely painter, Munna – the “dhobi” who aspires to become an actor and Yasmin – making a video in her camcorder for her brother, who hasn’t been to Mumbai before. The film follows how their lives are changed by the presence of one another. Will it be for better or for worse?I vividly remember the first viewing of Dhobi Ghat, I was in Std. 9th, it bewildered me with its characters and the new voice/style (non-mainstream) in Bollywood. And in the nTH viewing, the film just got better with its characters, the plot devices, arcs and the overcrowded city which acts as a loner. Kiran Rao takes us through the quest of four characters in an urban setting which acts hostile, the article focuses on the characters.
Arun (a painter), Shai (New York-based banker and a photographer), Yasmeen (newly wedded bride) and Munna (a washerman) – these four character come from four distinct social classes, even in terms of caste. Every character is an immigrant, Arun shifts to a new house, Shai who works in New York visits Mumbai, Yasmeen is a newly wedded bride and Munna is a migrant from Bihar. The presence of characters is more important than their social class, though the latter works lending a character arc to transformation. Like, a local train where the passengers board irrespective of their social status, Kiran Rao keeps the social angle subtle.
Arun’s character is the most complex among the four, he’s a painter who now lives all by himself in his moving box (rental flat). An introvert divorcee now has a six-year offspring living in Australia, though he paints abstract lives of people on canvas – his own life canvas is empty. This transformation includes moving in a new flat, where he discovers few remains including video cassettes of an old tenant. Arun is slowly moved by the stories from video cassettes of Yasmeen Noor who’s newly married and settling in Mumbai, showing the city to her brother. Arun also has an encounter with Shai during one of his exhibitions, but he is more mused by Yasmeen’s innocence.
Here, Arun as a painter is given a muse (the way M. F. Hussain had numerous muses), but not in the terms of beauty. He now resides in her abode, slowly he understands her – until a tragedy which shatters him. Two distinct social classes can be noticed, but doesn’t create any obstacles since Arun’s sensibilities are rooted.
Munna, the dhobi, who also delivers washed clothes to Arun and Shai, while he has obvious infatuation for Shai. Munnai is the connecting factor and completes the entwined stories with clothes. And at night, he sets out to kill rats on the streets of Mumbai. Munna’s character is the most naive as well perceivable character who has been realised in full potential. In an intriguing note, dhobi ghat acts as a secular place where irrespective of social classes – the clothes are being bleached and washed by the unknown hands. And Munna falls for a New York-based Shai, a photographer by passion exploring the city and intense emotions of Arun. Shai completes the social classes, by hailing from the upper strata.
Myriad emotions ponder and pester with you long after the viewing, traits of characters will resurface constantly prominently Yasmeen’s enthusiasm of communicating with her brother through a camcorder. Then, there’s Munna, who endearing innocence boils with ambition and love. Shai’s eagerness to explore the city and obsession with an artist and Arun, the self-indulgent artist who never tries to fit in. None of the characters grasp or reach their full potential, it gives a sense of melancholy while ending up merely as “sketches”. Dhobi Ghat is a fresh air with a void of loneliness and belongingness, which these four characters depend upon and live.
Mumbai hides its aesthetics in the boisterous street life amidst torrential rainfall, Kiran Rao weaves in poverty, crime, desires, dreams, art, photography, crime and tragedy in the intertwining character-driven film. Arun terms Mumbai as, “my muse, my whore, my beloved” – truly, if you’ve struggled or lived in Mumbai amidst its distinct layers – these three words will strike you like lightening.
Kiran Rao, who belongs to the suburban part, handles Muhammad Ali Road as well Juhu in their truest sense. One can’t possibly distinguish where the Director belongs from, she’s from the seafaring apartment as well as the by-lanes of Dhobi Ghat – Kiran’s beloved muse is evident and honest. I would recommend you to watch Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) for its characters.
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