There’s a startlingly beautiful scene midway through “Dhobi Ghat” (I think its international release title of “Mumbai Diaries” is more appropriate though); a budding home documentary maker, unaware of her grace with the camera, finds a subject for it during the mundane moment of haggling for bangle prices. A painter watches this home video, gleaning inspiration from it to make a sketch of the outstretched hand with the bangles. And a few buildings away, a woman fuels her art and desire by capturing the painter on camera.
They’re all artists or aspirants here. There is, at one level of the movie, a narrative simply exploring the happenstance of 4 intersecting lives in the city of Mumbai – and that’s a nice enough subject making for a well observed drama at just that level. Where “Dhobi Ghat” occasionally touches moments of transcendence is when it lets itself become a meditation on the relationship of artists with their subjects and the city around them.
We start with a one night stand ending in bitterness, as Arun, the painter (a remarkably restrained Aamir Khan) all-but-physically kicks out the smitten Shai from his apartment. Shai goes on to build a friendship with her dhobi, Zohaib or Munna as he is better known (Prateik Babbar is quite a revelation here), even as Arun unearths a set of tapes in his apartment. Munna gets Shai to make a portfolio of pictures to fuel his Bollywood aspirations, even as he unwittingly leads her back to Arun (but of course, they have the same dhobi, see). Arun’s tapes reveal the story of Yasmin, a charming young Muslim housewife, substituting the tape for letters to send to her brother back home.
There’s a sense of quiet desperation that seeps through the movie; the dhobi who is deeply in love with the “rich Amreeka return” woman, but cannot, and will not, communicate it to her; Shai, who is unhealthily obsessed with the dismissive Arun even as he fires her creative urges; and most movingly, Yasmin, through her video recordings. In the guise of these tapes is composed not just a love letter to Mumbai, but the gradual chronicle of a hopeful spirit breaking down into despair. As essayed by Kriti Malhotra, Yasmin is a wonderfully empathetic character, and the video passages of her merely narrating the onscreen happenings are amongst the most memorable sequences of the movie.
Mumbai itself punctuates these stories; following every set of new conversations/developments, “Dhobi Ghat” takes a breather to soak in the city, sometimes glistening in afternoon rain, sometimes bathed in neon light, aided by the restrained lull of a great background score courtesy Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla. Few descriptions of Mumbai abound without the usage of the words “hurried”, “bustling” or “crowded” – so it’s strange that a movie that completely defies any of those adjectives – meditative is the word that comes to mind – should be able to capture it so perfectly.