Hindi cinema, particularly that called Bollywood cinema, is often a pastiche of snippets and vignettes from cinema all over the world. And the influences are usually aged and not modern. Thus Life in a Metro, the film that could almost be Dhobi Ghat if minimalized, took an entire sequence in its interconnecting stories from the Billy Wilder 1960 film The Apartment, but wove in a few other tales around the trysting place to modernize the whole. Others did not care as much – Tees Maar Khan went right to deSica’s 1966 film After the Fox and simply added in a few extreme characters and item songs to season the tale for Indian palates.
Now Kiran Rao has dared to drag Hindi cinema into the 20th century by making Dhobi Ghat. Simply for that attempt to move beyond the set narrative based films we should commend her. However, these are still baby steps and a large distance remains to be traversed. The influence of world cinema is very strong on Dhobi Ghat. The set of interconnecting stories shifting and reforming like dynamic puzzle pieces around a teeming city, and the pensive mood set by the reclusive artist as he broods over video-taped letters he finds, makes it easy to spot the unmistakable Wong Kar Wai influence. In 1994 Kar Wai made Chungking Express, a story of two love-lorn policemen, unconnected tales, except for the city they were in, and the fact that both had lost love. There too the mood was pensive, dreamy, and whole film an artist’s palette of color, mood and motion. Of course more recently Inarritu has taken interconnecting stories to a different level, starting with Amores Perros. The stories intersect usually triggered by some violent or catastrophic event, something that has no doubt influenced Kiran Rao. Skirting city centric films like Paris Je T’Aime, which somehow tried to connect 20 stories set in the real star of the film, Paris, she makes Mumbai an almost living breathing entity without glorifying it in any way. This is a scary Mumbai, where the watchman does not know what happened to a past tenant and (without spoilers given away) that seems almost unbelievable, there are drug wars and killings, and good looking men pimp their looks for money.
The package is let down by some amateurish writing that is riddled with coincidences, and some miscasting that drags down the effort. There are too many coincident meetings in the metropolis, making the very point about a large teeming heartless city quite pointless. The one dhobi connects all the dots, and everyone can see everyone else from an apartment window or doorway. The dialogs are stilted, and equally jarring when Monica Dogra talks in her Firangi Hindi accent about Dakshini Asia, or Aamir talks in English about his city, his muse, whore. The star of the show is Kriti Malhotra as Yasmeen. Starting out bubbly and vivacious, she goes slowly into fade mode, presaged by her fading into the light in the Elephanta caves (?). Parteik has tremendous screen presence, and Kiran manages to extract much more out of him as the beefed up star wannabe dhobi than Abbas Tyrewala ever could as the artistic self absorbed brat in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. He does have problems with dialog delivery, but who cares when he can smile that, or look so vulnerable. Monica Dogra fits the role but does not add much to it, weighed down as she is by that awful Hindi accent and a monotonous dialog delivery in Hindi. Aamir is the most misfit of all four lead actors. His straining to underplay his role is palpable, forehead veins popping, crooked smile firmly in place. Even he settles in gradually, though is never completely comfortable in this film. Much has been made of the background score – but no one mentions the tracks by Begum Akhtar and Siddheshwari Devi that sublimely elevate the mood.
Kiran Rao is a fresh new talent, and to be applauded for trying something different. Now she needs to make all the pieces fit, and give the whole her own stamp – then perhaps we will be looking at great cinema, but we are far from that yet.