Looking Closely, Thinking Boldly

As a slew of debut filmmakers pour into the Bollywood landscape, we are seeing a different approach to cinema. Now, we are not entering a ‘New Wave’ or a cinematic renaissance by any means, but the flush of fresh faces emerging in the industry, be it through genuine effort or nepotism is giving the people who watch Indian cinema some eagerness to see what new stories can be brewed in a film industry which has heavily lacked originality or insight for decades. Kiran Rao is the wife of Aamir Khan, possibly the most diverse face in the mainstream eye of India. Khan has written, acted, sang, produced and directed for movies. He is a well known ‘perfectionist’ and that too, a perfectionist to a fault, almost being immature about his own lack of control over the creative process when simply producing or acting. This personality of his made me question why him and his wife didn’t go into directing in the first place? Aamir has a film of his own under his belt… it is the melodramatic, but eye-catching Taare Zameen Par. Kiran Rao until this point has not directed. In 2011 she came out with her first film, and my word, what a film it was.

Dhobi Ghat (Kiran Rao, 2011)

After assisting such big names as Ashutosh Gowarikar and Mira Nair, it is to no surprise that Rao knows how things work on the film set. What is most obvious after having watched her debut film Dhobi Ghat, is that she has complete and confident control over the world she is filming. Probably the most surprising debut for an Indian filmmaker since Shimit Amin’s punch-to-the-gut Ab Tak Chappan, Dhobi Ghat examines the world of Mumbai and uses it’s set pieces to paint a vivid, almost impressionistic image of the city; it’s socio-political faults as well as it’s serene, tropical beauty. Rao’s keen observations of seemingly ordinary occurrences take time to dig through and for the impatient viewer, the ideas, messages and personalities of a city so filled with life evaporate without a trace.

The film follows 4 stories, all interconnected through the cityscapes and the social workings of daily Mumbai. Shai (Monica Dogra) is an American-Indian investment banking consultant who is on a hiatus from her work. Arun (Aamir Khan) is an artist who looks to buy a new apartment and further his career. Munna (Pratiek Babbar) is a dhobi (washerman) who spends his time washing and delivering clothes to his clients including Arun and Shai. Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) is a young Muslim newlywed who is only seen through her own video recordings, which Arun plays on his TV. Rao cuts and intertwines their stories giving the central locale of the film a multi-faceted personality. Each characters interactions with their world and each other breathes of a genuine connection, fostered through the underplaying of their feelings. We have no room for tear-jerking melodrama here, because the characters are all too grounded in their reality and given such humanistic touches that we feel we could meet them without much effort. There is someone in Dhobi Ghat who is in all our lives, be it a struggling dreamer, a woman caught in a bad marriage, a girl looking for a little adventure or a loner trying to make it big. Even from the beginning as Shai meets Arun, their connection is never rushed or given an excuse for. We are not coerced into believing a ‘love at first sight’ connection which Bollywood and Hollywood force feed us as plausible. We are given the options of alcohol, sexual chemistry and devious attitude as much more buyable alternatives, even though they may not fit into the acceptable social mold of a conservative Indian society. We are not locked in a box in Rao’s film, but rather allowed to explore the deeper implications of human connection. Sex is natural, cursing through frustration is something we do every day in our personal lives.

Kiran Rao manages to portray this idea and battle the Indian conservative philosophies through some stunning and minimalist camerawork. We are not panning through the grandeur of a bustling metropolis, but keenly observing the people and the culture of a city that is considered on of the worlds largest and most populated, thus revealing the intimate secrets of it’s desires and lusts. Patience in a virtue in Rao’s film, which moves and exudes an emotional fragrance close to that of Sofia Copolla’s Lost in Translation. Many a scene may shock the everyday Indian film-goer who is force-fed childish carnival shows and soap-opera antics in 3 hour installments akin to rejected ABC-Family movies. The film’s sophistication in seduction and social commentary may also come as a surprise to followers of Kashyap and Bharadwaj’s filmmaking (I myself being one), where genuine vigor and bold expression has now unfortunately given way for ham-fisted controversy for the sake of acting rebellious and uncompromising. A scene between Aamir and Shai in particular is heart-pounding and extremely well choreographed as the two drink several glasses of wine and as they begin to dance, caressing each other, the camera slyly goes out of focus and clear, sophisticated thought gives into carnal instinct. Shai also witnesses the chiseled body of Munna during a photoshoot and Dogra’s acting in particular impressively gives the scene tense and sexual feel as her face fights back from staring too hard.

Through curious excavation and a heartwarming portrayal of ordinary characters, we start to understand a bigger picture of the human connection, it’s euphoric temptations and it’s tragic downfalls. Detailed with each tap of the brush like a Monet painting, and complex enough on the inside to force you to question your own world, Kiran Rao’s enigmatic Dhobi Ghat is a deep meditation of Mumbai that truly brings the city to life. It looks closely and thinks boldly while maintaining a delectably elegant charm… it is the type of keen eye look at the people of India that hasn’t been made for decades and Rao, by some miracle of willpower, got it right on her first try.

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