Boasting a refreshing international art house style, Kiran Rao’s ” Dhobi Ghat” (Mumbai Diaries) is a surprisingly moving, intimate film. First time writer-director Kiran Rao’s husband Aamir Khan, a Bollywood mega- star, plays the lead role and produces. Khan who starred and directed the charming “Like Stars On Earth” (“Taare Zameen Par”) was last seen here in the hilarious “Three Idiots,” and “Lagaan” and starred in and directed the charming “Taare Zameen Par (“Like Stars On Earth.”)
Kiran Rao’s story follows the twined stories of four Mumbai residents, each at an important juncture in their lives.
Spoiled American investment banker Shai (singer Monica Dogra) returns to Mumbai on a working vacation, ostensibly to photograph local workers as part of a feasibility study on a planned project. The daughter of one of Mumbai’s biggest art investors, she meets artist Arun (Khan) at his gallery show and the two fall into bed together. Though the chemistry is great, detached Arun, traumatized by a divorce, is uncomfortable dating. Shai, however, can’t stop thinking about him. She looks for any reason to visit him and renew their relationship.
Losing his sublease, Arun moves into a large flat in a dodgy Muslim neighborhood (owned by Shai’s father, a rich slumlord and international developer.) In the hallway a silent elderly lady watches him with reproachful stares. Discovering tapes left by the former tenants,
Arun is drawn in by the young wife Yasmin’s (Kriti Malhotra) video Mumbai diaries. Shy Arun, unable to make a strong connection, falls under Yasmin’s spell, seeing Mumbai from her viewpoint. Like so many rural poor, Yasmin moved to Mumbai for a better life. Arun watches her transform from a hopeful country bride, with her life before her, to a woman with no reason to live. Her dreams dashed, she takes matters into her own hands.
Preparing for an upcoming one-man show in Australia, Arun bases his painting on Yasmin and her sad destiny.
Arun’s dhobi (laundry boy) Munna (Prateik) also works for Shai, who befriends the charming would-be actor. Discovering he works for Arun, Shai uses Munna as a go-between to Arun. Munna acts as Shai’s guide to Mumbai, she discovers things about the teeming capitol city through his eyes.
American bred Shai, oblivious to local caste issues, allows this inappropriate relationship to grow, spending every afternoon with the handsome Munna (to the dismay of her maid.) Confused by her kindness, and egged on by his mocking, adopted brother Salim, Munna begins to see her as a possible girlfriend.
Dhobi’s are considered ‘untouchables’, despite India’s new Constitution. Munna practices the former caste’s age-old occupation (dhobi means to wash). He lives in a shack near the tracks, and spends time with Salim (Danish Hussain), a petty drug dealer who’s killed by the local gang boss.
Dreamer Munna wants to transform himself. He convinces Shai to shoot his head shots. She records his work as a laundry boy, running afoul of an older woman who he sexually services. The jealous woman fires Munna. Shai insists on shooting Munna at the teeming dhobi ghat (stairs)- the world’s largest outdoor laundry, surrounded by vast concrete wash vats, where he does his daily wash. Munna’s ashamed to be seen there, even more so when she catches him moonlighting as a rat catcher.
Cinematographer Tushar Kanti Ray uses Super 16 and mini-DV, plus stills (by Jyotika Jain) to tell the story from different viewpoints. A scene in a traffic jam is particularly striking. Production designer Manisha Khandelwal creatively shows us rich and poor, past and present of the teeming, decaying city still known as Bombay by its over nineteen million inhabitants.