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Unabashedly smitten by backdrop, filmmakers take us through neighbourhoods, by-lanes and situations familiar to them, in an attempt to let the city woo us as it has clearly done them. Dhobi Ghat is a film utterly besotted by Bombay — which is why it jars when it doesn't call it that.
There are four protagonists, each starkly different from the other. It all varies diametrically: background, career, social standing, and most critically, their level of acquaintance with the city, their relationship with Bombay.
And yet, most likely to skirt clear of inane controversy, they constantly call it Mumbai [ Images ]. We don't. As a migrant increasingly in love with this city, I declare that commitment to the safer word untrue, a false note that tragically trips up a film trying so hard.
And that is what Kiran Rao's directorial debut eventually is, a film that tries too hard. And visibly so. Falling prey to all the arthouse cliches — handheld cameras, romanticised obsession with rain, multiple narratives, conversations focussing on class disparity, exclusively 'creative' lead characters — the film comes across as earnest but hollow.
Handicapped by the self-consciousness of a student film, it feels like a diploma project, albeit one with excellent production values and solid performers. Rao occasionally conjures up lovely moments, moments that feel wonderfully accidental and incidental, but those that fleet by too quickly. It is a clearly affectionate debut, but falls short of being an impressive one.
It is a film with soul, but not nearly enough story. The plot — that of an artist stumbling upon a story as characters around him fall into one-sided love — just doesn't have enough meat to warrant a feature.
Dhobi Ghat would have worked wonderfully as a short, actually, at most a 40-minute ode to the city. I strong believe films have a right to forsake story, sometimes even entirely, but then they must seduce interest through mood, texture, and emotion — the telling can overwhelm the need for the tale. If skimpy with the meat, give us gravy worth killing for. And while Rao is dedicated to mood and languor, her film just doesn't engage enough to justify its length.
The parts are better than the whole, really. Gustavo Santaolalla's score is beautiful, for example, the title theme positively haunting.
And Prateik is a treat. Fantastic from the get-go, the thrilling young actor has a warm, immediately likable screen presence and provides the film's most honest moments. His body language — slackery and loose, like a wornout rubberband, occasionally snapping into speed — allows him to inhabit the dhobi's skin, and there are scenes he positively shines in.
Aamir Khan [ Images ], in my mind looking better than ever, leaves his innate Aamirity aside and truly becomes the film's Arun, a reflective, self-involved artist shaken out of his stupor by a revealing story. He's a great character — one distanced from his own grief but easily and voyeuristically feeding upon a stranger's tragedy — and Khan forsakes charisma for credibility.
There comes a time he gets scared — I refuse to reveal what of — and Aamir's freakout is perfect and pure, a goosepimply moment of acting transcendence. However, he's only good when he isn't talking. It's an absolute shock, but Khan seems ill-equipped to handle English dialogue, his delivery stagey, inconsistent and mostly artificial. He's a fine actor delivering one of his best, most understated, most honest performances, but his lines don't work at all. Yet Rao mercifully gives him more beats than words, and those he knocks clear out of the park.
As a camera-happy banker enamoured by the city's sleaze, Monica Dogra is very, very believable. It's a solid performance but her accent, however authentic, ironically gets on the nerves. It suits the character to a T, and yet cinematically it lets her character down, which is a shame because it's so well-written.
Kriti Malhotra has the opposite problem. Playing a smalltown girl writing a video letter to her brother, she's both authentic and visibly talented, but her character is one-note, the only flat one of the four.
So fits and starts, then. There is some fine writing on display, and mostly steady performances, but usually independent of each other.
For a paean to an often-caressed city, it has nothing new to say or show, save a brief glimpse of the rat-killing profession. And then there's its stubborn conventionality: Prateik and Dogra's arc, for example, cries out for sex, but it is denied; Babbar instead is straddled with a strange gangster tragedy that seems shoehorned into the film merely out of a need to wrap up a Bombay-cliche checklist.
Dhobi Ghat is a middling debut, watchable due to its nuances but simply not interesting enough to recommend. Yet Rao seems assured of her craft, and worth looking out for in the future.
Indeed, she deserves applause just for giving Prateik the platform she has, highlighting a raw young actor the industry ought covet. She clearly cares for her characters and has a massive crush on Bombay, her leading lady. Yet her lovesong, however earnest, just doesn't sound good enough.
Rediff Rating: 21/2 stars
Joined: 15 June 2007
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Dhobi Ghat is an acquired taste. Either the film will sink into your skin like a slow ache or it will be bewildering and downright boring.
Kiran Rao's first film is an atmospheric mood piece. There is no overt plot – four lives randomly connect in Mumbai. There are fleeting moments of happiness and pain and the eventual realisation that the journey never ends. The struggle to survive and to connect is eternal.
The characters are Shai, played by Monica Dogra, an NRI investment banker who is back in Mumbai for, she says, a change of pace. Arun, played by Aamir Khan, an angst-ridden artist who has a one-night stand with Shai but has little affection or time for her the next morning.
Munna, played by Prateik, a dhobi with dreams of becoming an actor. And Yasmin, a young married Muslim girl, played by Kriti Malhotra, who makes video diaries that Arun discovers.
These people intersect in the disparate spaces of the city – posh art galleries and narrow gullies in slums; the dhobi ghat and high-rises.
Munna and Shai make a connection but can something too fraught and tenuous to even be called a friendship, transcend class difference?
The fifth character in the film is Mumbai, a teeming city of migrants that remains unknowable, alienating, harshly beautiful and brutally indifferent.
Kiran Rao and cinematographer Tushar Kanti Ray construct a rich and intimate portrait of the city. In places, the locations almost overshadow the characters – there is a terrific shot of Arun walking down the bustling Mohammed Ali Road during Ramzan.
In another scene, Munna covers his shanty from the torrential rain as local trains whiz by.
Rao also observes human behavior keenly – so when Shai first asks Munna to sit down in her up-market apartment, he hesitantly feels the sofa before placing himself down. And when Shai's disapproving maid serves them tea, she brings one nice cup and one glass that befits Munna's status.
Prateik is achingly lovely as Munna but the star of the film is the luminous Kriti Malhotra who revealingly loses the hope and shine in her eyes.
This saga of love and longing is punctuated by a haunting background score created by Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla.
What doesn't work as well is the pacing. Rao's build-up of characters is painfully slow with the first 30 minutes or so being the most problematic.
Some of the early scenes are clumsy and the disjointed narrative just isn't engaging enough. I was also confused by the suggestion that Munna is having a relationship with an older woman customer – so does the dhobi routinely offer more than just clean clothes?
Intriguingly, Aamir Khan, otherwise such a fine actor, strikes a false note.
With constantly furrowed brows, he seems to be performing at a different pitch from everyone else. You can almost feel the weight of being in an art house film on his shoulders - the early scenes with him and Monica are particularly awkward.
Still, if you are willing to have patience, Dhobi Ghat comes together nicely. It has a poetry and melancholy that stays with you. I recommend that you give it a shot.
Joined: 25 January 2008
|B.O. update: 'Dhobi Ghat' excellent at main properties of urban centres|
|- By Taran Adarsh, January 21, 2011 - 18:34 IST|
| DHOBI GHAT, a film catering to a niche audience, opened to a superb response at select properties across all urban centres. The opening at the main 25/30 odd properties was in 80% to 90% range, while the occupancy at non-urban centres/mass belt properties ranged from 30% to 40%. The film has been released in 325 screens in India, which, some people feel, is still on the higher side given the genre of this film [art house cinema]. However, with Aamir Khan as the producer and also one of the actors of this film, the screen count seems appropriate, since the week is very good [Wednesday, 26 January is a holiday] and the producers, who are also its distributors, feel that a tidy sum can be recovered in its initial week.|
The evening and night shows of DHOBI GHAT are expected to be very good at urban centres [the advance booking has been very good] and a healthy weekend is on the cards.
What goes in its favor is its low cost. The cost of production is Rs. 5 cr [the figure has been confirmed by Aamir Khan to this writer] and an additional Rs. 2.5 cr to Rs. 3 cr has been spent on P & A, which takes the total cost to approx. Rs. 7.5 cr to Rs. 8 cr. While Aamir is in talks for the Satellite Rights of the film, he should be able to recover the entire figure [Rs. 8 cr] from Satellite itself, while the theatrical business in India, Overseas and also the revenue generated from Home Video should come as bonus.
Internationally, DHOBI GHAT, which opened on Thursday in U.A.E., has embarked on an excellent start, garnering better opening figures than TAARE ZAMEEN PAR, according to UTV.
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