Despite being an avid Hindi film viewer, this is the first Indian film I am writing about. It deserves a ‘review’ here partly because it has managed to impress me and partly because it has made me pretty angry.
Released internationally as Mumbai Diaries, the film follows the lives of four characters in Mumbai: Munna, the washerman(dhobi)-by-day and rat-killer-by-night, who works two jobs to make ends meet and aspires to be an actor as so many others do in this city of opportunity; Arun, the acclaimed artist, who shuns his adoring audience whenever possible but lives a comfortable life thanks to that very rich audience in this city of affluence; Shai, the US-based investment banker, who is on sabbatical and spending her time photographing the dirty areas of this city of extreme poverty, which people in her social circle would not tread into; and finally, Yasmin, who comes to this city of dreams, with hope in her heart, but finds, like everyone else, that this is also the city of disappointment. Four inter-woven lives – against the backdrop of the fifth very prominent character of the story – Mumbai, the city itself.
The casting, acting and direction, throughout the film, is flawless. Kiran Rao, a first-time director and writer, has done a fantastic job. Aamir Khan (Arun), Monica Dogra (Shai) and Kriti Malhotra (Yasmin) look the characters and perform them well. But it’s Prateik Babbar (Munna), son of actor-politician Raj Babbar and late actress Smita Patil, who takes your breath away. His face manages to portray vulnerability, street-smart, shyness and jealousy without ever showing any signs of effort. Like Kunal Kapoor and Sharman Joshi before him, he can carve a nice little niche in Hindi films, if he continues to be an actor, rather than trying to become a Bollywood star.
In all this positivity, where is the anger I speak of, you probably wonder. Well, the film manages to break away from Bollywood clichés and classic narratives, by being song-and-dance-less and by not giving the audience an obvious resolution – the end – which is normally expected from Hindi films. In all this, and so much more, it has managed to bring in European sensibilities and, through that, has found respectability amongst film viewers and reviewers all over the globe. But what it has not managed to do is to break away from emulating another cinema.
Classic ‘Bollywood’ (regardless of how much that name is hated in India) was very much based on classic Hollywood narrative and over the years has developed its own identity (hence the issues with the derivative name). Hate it or love it, Bollywood speaks a different cinematic language, which is very much its own (and is shared by other South Asian cinemas). So, breaking from the convention is worth appreciating, but breaking from it to make a European film instead is not exactly heroic.
In fact, it’s not even a general language of cinema that Dhobi Ghat borrows from, which would have been very acceptable. It very specifically emulates the style of Mexican auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose films are very popular in Europe (as well as, all over the world). The effects of a person’s life on other lives, the interlinks between human beings, the disparity between people belonging to different socio-economic classes and the use of cityscape images as well as shots of people going about their business in the city – used together these are such signature themes from Iñárritu’s films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) that it’s difficult not to see the obvious ‘inspirations’ for Kiran Rao’s work. And then there’s the music…simple, but melancholic…a little haunting. As if I needed any further proof for my claims, the end credits of the film named Gustavo Santaolalla as the composer for the film. Santaolalla just happens to the Argentinian who has composed the music for almost all of Iñárritu’s films!
So, a film I would have appreciated for its ‘different’ storytelling and excellent performances – and would have criticised for the absence of an engaging story – is a little difficult for me to like, because of its very obvious borrowing from a genius director’s work.
Still, a good watch – and definitely recommended.