This essay is not a review and hence delves headlong into discussing what a filmis and has no room for plot points. While it is best read after having seen the film, I hope you enjoy it even if you haven’t seen it. It is spoiler free as far as I can see, but please feel free to ignore this to maximize your enjoyment of the film.
Dhobi Ghat, or as we say it here in Chilli Crab country, Dhoby Ghaut, is many things at once, but most strongly for me it (is a love letter to Mumbai that) talks about the relationship between the upper, privileged class and the lower to lower middle class that enables them, creates the essence of Mumbai. It also is about art and our relationship with it and this straddles the first theme almost completely. It is also about loss, betrayal, loneliness, regret, and hope – likely in that order – but those are byproducts of a film that chooses to lavish a lot of detail and nuance on to each character.
The biggest strength about the filmmaking on offer here is that each story strand is complete in and of itself. Munna has a coming of age arc, a reality slap that grows him up in an instant, while Shai and Arun’s stories are about finding the art within, though Shai has a lot to find about herself, while Arun needs to come to terms with his loss of emotion. Yasmin has the most poignant arc – that of innocence robbed – and it affects all the other stories more than it lets on. (Her happiness and grimness affect Arun, whose muse she has unwittingly become, but notice how his change in mood also affects the other two protagonists in profound ways).
The reason that Kiran Rao lets that happen to an offscreen character (and the most cheesily written – with a distinct lack of visual poetry in her scenes, Rao chooses to give her actual verbally poetic lines, which are poorly thought through. No matter her strengths as a director, her command of Hindustani isn’t as strong, often resorting to clichés in her lines for Yasmin. Then again, there aren’t too many words or turns of phrases left that Bollywood hasn’t mined) is not just to develop her as a valid, fourth story. Rao is trying to create a distilled vision of her artistic world view; it’s key for her to show us through her medium of choice the different relationships that artists have with their muse and how it effects them and vice versa.
There is no doubt in my mind that Munna and Yasmin’s stories – just as their social class as depicted in the film – are here to help Shai and Arun create their art and make them realize important things about themselves. This distinction between the privileged and the ones that enable their privilege is very clear in the structure of the film. It takes a moment of genuine selflessness on Munna’s part to make Shai , a fledgling photographer, realize something about herself. Similarly Arun’s final moment of truth comes through Yasmin’s final moment of admitted emotional incapacitation. Munna and Yasmin go through their transformations independently of these; their very real and tangible problems forcing them to grow up and lose their innocence. The working class enables the art and the emotional closure in the privileged in Rao’s Mumbai, and never the other way around.
A wondrous glimpse of the sheer derring-do of this class comes in a small moment when a bai’s daughter impromptu recites Tennyson while her mum admits she is more into poetry and dance than other subjects. Rao seems to concede that dreams and dreamers in her Mumbai come from elsewhere too, just that her story seems to be about these people. Probably her Mumbai will either crush that young girl as it crushed Munna and Yasmin, or it will make her a celebrated artist moving in higher strata of society just like Shai and Arun.
To be fair, the class politics are beautifully drawn: especially with Munna as he plays different roles that satisfy different needs. He is the dhobi, the rat killer, the muse, the confidante, the guide, the drug supplier, the boy toy, and ultimately the single most enabler of emotional catharsis for Shai. Little moments that show different working class people are equally well drawn – this mumblecore film is not beyond incessant navel gazing – to a point where it seems like the anti Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye (this film is about the BoBos and the privileged, with nicely drawn details of the working class, while OLLO told a well thought working class story with well drawn bourgeois characters).
The class politics are only the text though – the film speaks on a lot of levels to a lot of people. A close friend mentioned she thought it was about unfulfilled and nonreciprocal love, and how the film refuses to love us in return too. To me the biggest subtext was the creation of art and the different ways we treat and respond to our muse to create art. Shai’s best pictures (and her most prolific photography) comes after she has been emboldened by her relationship with Munna, where she confirms herself of the reality of the person before she can tackle his life. Arun’s fractured relationships have left him unfeeling – he calls Mumbai his muse and whore, but without feeling. He likely thinks hasn’t given anything back for the privilege of taking Mumbai in completely, until he realizes he has. Moving apartments to be in the middle of lower middle class Mumbai he finds more than he bargains for, and after he has created his masterpiece, goes back to the safety of the mechanical (his next apartment overlooks factories).
Arun’s arc and his relationship with his past and his art are probably the most complex, and ultimately the most heavy-handed. That his past has stopped him from having emotional closure comes a full circle when tapes from the past spark his creativity. Very visibly – well, very obviously his moods shift as he goes through the tapes. It all comes together when he displays a genuine, visible emotion for the first time in front of a silent neighbor. The neighbor being the stand in for the audience to the creation of art – they do not share in the creative process, and yet enjoy the naked emotions of the artist laid bare in front of them. Yet silent, forever. This irked me quite a bit – Rao seems to dismiss anyone who watches her art as a silent spectator, with nothing to add, while at the same time she seems to derive inspiration from the very people who are her audience.
Despite Aamir’s bit not working wholly for me though – I cannot urge you enough to go watch this film. There is a lot going on; it is also an immigrant story about outsiders trying to find a place for themselves in Mumbai. It begins with three characters moving houses and ends with two of them moving again. A city in motion constantly making people move too seemed apt, but it is hardly anything Rao dwells on. Ultimately I think her treatise on Mumbai is a little fractured, but never less than whole. Her stories cover what it is to be Mumbai and to be in Mumbai at the same time, even if the Mumbai on screen is her Mumbai.