Kiran Rao has made an excellent debut with Dhobi Ghat (aka Mumbai Diaries), a film which she wrote and directed, and which had its first UK screening at the London Film Festival last night. During the Q&A, Rao explained that she wanted to use her film to examine the standard Bollywood premise that love can overcome any obstacle. In popular Indian cinema, the sons of kings and tycoons regularly fall in love with the daughters of poor artists and villagers, and they usually manage to stay together in the end. But in real-life Mumbai, could this ever really happen?
The film focuses on four central characters. There is Shai, a young American of Indian background: she has come to Mumbai on sabbatical from her New York banking job, hoping to pursue her passion for photography. At a gallery opening, she meets Arun (played by the director’s husband, Bollywood star Aamir Khan, looking more and more like Jude Law these days). Arun is an abstract painter, and he and Shai quickly hit it off, but Arun is not interested in a relationship. These first two characters are not the inversion of Bollywood’s standard rich boy meets poor girl, however: Arun is a successful artist, and moves in privileged circles. The film features two more vulnerable characters, and the two titles pay homage to them. India has a ‘dhobi’ caste of people who wash clothes for a living, and the ‘ghat’ is the area where they work. Young, handsome and deferential, Munna happens to be the dhobi for both Shai and Arun. Shai’s natural, friendly demeanour and relaxed attitude to class make her more open to interacting with her dhobi: she greets him by name when she sees him in public, and invites him in for tea when he delivers her laundry. In spite of the stark contrast of their upbringing and smaller differences in their attitudes, Shai and Munna become friends. Munna hopes for something more, but Shai is still thinking about Arun. The fourth character is the author of the title’s Mumbai diaries: although she only appears as a mediated image in the film, never as a physical body, Yasmin is a moving presence for both Arun and the audience. As a young Muslim newlywed, Yasmin moved to Mumbai and kept a video diary, which she intended to send to her brother back home. When Arun moves into a new apartment, he finds the videotapes in a drawer, along with a few photographs and pieces of jewellery. Unable to return them to their owner, Arun begins watching the video diaries, and is intrigued and inspired by the simple but genuine girl who appears in them.
The film treats all of its characters equally: there is respect for both the privileged and the underprivileged, and where there is satire, it is distributed equally. Shai and the audience are allowed to laugh at Munna’s conceitedness, and his clichéd ideas about how his actor’s portfolio photos should look: yet Munna would probably need to adopt precisely such an attitude and such foolish poses in order to succeed in Bollywood. Meanwhile, the film highlights an equal degree of cliché in Shai’s Western fascination with the grubbier realities of Mumbai and her desire to capture them on film. As for Arun, there is comedy in his occasional ineptitude with women, while Yasmin comes across as a little naïve: but the film gives both of these characters an easier time than either Shai or Munna, and they are diminished as a result. Arun and Yasmin are exact opposites not only in terms of sophistication, but in terms of their attitudes: while Yasmin is warm, selfless and a little too weak, Arun comes across as strong, cold and egotistical. Although there is greater sympathy for Yasmin, both she and Arun are less developed as characters, and this results in a distancing effect. The audience will feel a much stronger bond with the Munna and Shai, as they are much well-rounded, believable and sympathetic characters. Luckily, the film does not spend an excessive amount of time with the Arun and Yasmin strand of the story, and instead devotes most attention to Shai and Munna. While the latter story provides the most genuine emotion, it also provides the most laughs: the film treats some serious themes, but it is also a thoroughly enjoyable and funny film to watch. Rao says that she is a big fan of New Asian cinema, and mentions Wong Kar-Wai in particular: I find that Rao’s ability to bring out endearing comic details in realistic everyday situations recalls some of the Hong Kong director’s early films such as Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. If there had been a little more substance to Arun, and if Yasmin’s character had been a little stronger, Dhobi Ghat could be mistaken for the masterpiece of an established director. As it stands, it is a genuinely impressive first film, and I look forward to Kiran Rao’s next feature.