Having gifted the Indian film industry with hits like Lagaan, Taare Zameen Par, Ghajini, 3 Idiots and Peepli Live, Aamir Khan has transformed himself from heartthrob hero to one of Bollywood’s most powerful players. Arguably the most successful actor and producer in India today, he has nothing much left to prove.
But that’s not the case for Kiran Rao. Having worked as an assistant director on award winning films like Lagaan and Monsoon Wedding, co-produced several films under Aamir’s wing and ultimately gone on to become his wife, the thirty something from Bangalore still has a lot to demonstrate - making a film in her own right being top of the list.
21st January 2011 sees the release of Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries), Rao’s debut as writer/director. With access to Aamir and his production company, it was only a matter of time before the ambitious lady made footsteps into the film world. But instead of heading straight for the predictable comfort of Bollywood, the fledgling filmmaker has opted to make a picture that veers towards the category of world cinema.
A far cry from the blockbuster masala entertainers Aamir is known for, Dhobi Ghat is a much subtler, somewhat restrained portrait of life in contemporary Mumbai. Following the story of four different residents of India’s maximum city, Rao presents us with a look at the high and low society folk we got a flash of in Slumdog Millionaire. While not as gritty or uplifting as Slumdog, Dhobi Ghat does look and sound as real as the city and its inhabitants we know to be.
There’s Munna (Prateik Babbar), a handsome young laundry boy (dhobi) who collects, washes and delivers clothes for middle class Mumbaites like Arun (Aamir Khan), a lauded artist whose oil paintings are no way as haunting as the mysterious package he finds in his new apartment. Then there’s Shai (Monica Dogra), an affluent American born investment banker on a sabbatical in Mumbai who meets and quickly becomes fascinated by Arun after spending the night with him. Finally there’s Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) a newly married housewife who films an innocent video diary for her brother while sitting at home and yearning for her elusive husband.
How the quartet’s lives intersect and are bound together as they journey through longing, loneliness, love and loss forms the body of the drama.
Shot on multiple formats (Super16mm and Mini DV) on real locations in Mumbai, Rao cleverly gives each of her main protagonists a distinct identity. Thanks to her crisp screenplay and eye for detail, Rao’s characters feel, look and sound authentic. For example, the rough slum slang with which Munna converses with his money hungry pals contrasts with the gentle banter he shares with sophisticated NRI Shai is well observed. Similarly, getting Aamir to speak (and swear) predominantly in English as opposed to Hindi also rings true for the frustrated middle class creative he portrays.
However, the one place Rao fails is in the casting of her partner. While newcomers Babbar, Dogra and Malhotra all transform into their respective characters with ease, it’s actually old timer Khan who looks awkward and out of place. As hard as you try you just can’t get over the fact that you are watching Aamir the superstar, not Arun the reclusive artist. Despite a decent turn, he somehow comes across wooden compared to his younger and much less experienced co-stars. In the end it’s Babbar who steals the show for his compelling depiction of a hard working young man struggling to progress in a society that won’t allow him.
This said, Rao deserves credit for daring to make a film that the majority of her home audience is not likely to warm to. With its song less 100 minute running time, European frame of reference and score by two-time Oscar-winning Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel), Dhobi Ghat isn’t one for the masses. It’s more likely to appeal to global audiences who like their cinema to offer them an interesting portrait of modern life and challenge their notions of what Indian filmmakers are all about.
The film is also about the entry of a talented young woman into a male dominated industry. With Dhobi Ghat, Rao stakes her place alongside the likes of Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta and more recently Peepli Live’s writer/director Anusha Rizvi. As an aspiring writer/director, I for one am happy to applaud that.
Dhobi Ghat releases in the UK on 21st January 2011.