There’s a throwaway scene late in “Dhobi Ghat” that has nearly nothing to do with the film’s story and yet sums up nearly all of the film’s considerable appeal when a photographer named Shai (Monica Dogra) has Munna, her dhobi Munna (Prateik) or laundry man, take her around the city of Mumbai where they stumble upon an empty fragrance store. The old man who mixes all his own scents tells the pair, “Now, it’s the machine age. People prefer bottled perfume” as they wander around his storefront.
You can practically smell his shop from the intimacy achieved in director Kiran Rao’s feature debut, though it should be noted that the film owes much to the mix of 16mm and Mini DV cameras that allow it to plunge deeply into the city and the lives of its denizens. “Dhobi Ghat” is neither a direct descendant of the neorealist cinema of Satyajit Ray or the slick confections that much of Bollywood is known for these days, instead finding itself, like its setting, caught in between eras where the beauty of past tradition is threatened by progress just as much as the traditions of the past threaten to prevent progress.
To that end, Rao doesn’t stray far from the formula for so many romantic dramas – Shai falls for an artist, Arun (Aamir Khan), who doesn’t return her affections while Munna clearly pines for her. But she also doesn’t cling tightly to it, resulting in a film that’s refreshingly loose, relaxed, and comfortable in knowing that the change going on around the characters is happening at the same speed as the camera can catch it, which is interesting enough.
It’s a considerable boon to the story since each of the characters are largely unmovable for a variety of reasons – Munna would like to be an actor, but despite his matinee idol looks, finds it impossible to change his social standing, which in turn makes him undesirable as anything but a friend to Shai, who has come to Mumbai on a retreat from her job in America as an investment banker and quickly becomes infatuated with Arun, a painter whose success artistically, and by extension financially, clearly is drawn from the pain on display in his work. His most serious relationship is with a handful of video diaries he finds in his apartment from the previous owner.
Naturally for a multi-stranded narrative as this, there are a bunch of loose ends, but that fringe is as necessary to the form of “Dhobi Ghat” as its fabric, meant to be a little shaggy in a city that constantly feels unsettled. The feeling is underlined by a minimalist, elegant score from “Brokeback Mountain” composer Gustavo Santaolalla that ultimately winds up being as prevalent as the bustle of the streets. As Arun says while holding up a glass to toast an art exhibit, “To Bombay, my muse, my whore, my beloved…,” which sounds a bit pretentious in context, but nonetheless encapsulates the diversity of emotions Rao is able to arouse right up to the film’s final minutes.
“Dhobi Ghat” is now open in limited release.