Wednesday, January 19, 2011

High-End Bollywood: Dhobi Ghat

Mumbai’s washer boys (dhobi) are evidently very photogenic. Perhaps one ambitious dhobi will even be able to realize his Bollywood dreams. He certainly would in a proper Bollywood movie. However, if not exactly Indian “Parallel Cinema,” Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat (a.k.a. Mumbai Diaries) certainly represents the high-end of Bollywood. Featuring no extravagant dance numbers, Rao’s Dhobi (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

Arun is not good with people, yet somehow the serious artist hooks up with the privileged Shai at a party. The next morning, she is still rather taken with him, but he would rather forget the whole thing. Awkward. Despite the brush off, Shai is a bit obsessed with the brooding painter. Fortunately, she discovers a link between them: Munna, their dhobi and would-be actor.

At first, Shai merely uses Munna for intel on Arun, but an unlikely if distinctly unequal friendship develops between them. She shoots his headshots and he takes her to the dhobi’s open air laundry, where she captures their proletarian essence on film. She nearly forgets about Arun, which is just as well. The artist has become preoccupied with a secret stash of videotapes recorded by the previous occupant of his new flat. Months after they were recorded, he watches Yasmin’s ostensive video-letters to her brother back home with mounting concern as the pretty young Muslim newlywed becomes increasingly miserable in her arranged marriage.

Although the found video motif is fairly standard movie stuff at this point, it is executed rather well in Ghat. It also lends a topicality to the film, as an attracted, educated Muslim woman finds herself little more than an indentured servant to her husband. Kriti Malhotra is indeed quite touching as the ill-fated Yasmin. Aamir Khan, Rao’s superstar lead actor and producer-husband, nicely expresses Arun’s fascination with the tragically compelling tapes. Indeed, his restraint in Ghat is something of a relief, considering the shameless corniness of his blockbuster Taare Zameen Par, for which the term cloying is entirely insufficient.

While the Shai-Munna threads lack the same dramatic heft, they benefit from diverging from the standard Bollywood playbook. Ordinarily, one would expect the handsome young slumdog to make it big and win the heart of his elite true love. However, class is simply a cold, hard reality in Ghat, which we might bemoan for the sake of all the real life Munnas, but gives a distinctive edge to Rao’s film.

Though often dealing with the melodramatic, Rao’s firm hand on the rudder keeps the film from ever going over the top. Eschewing traditional Bollywood music, it features a classy art cinema soundtrack composed by Gustavo Santaolalla (best known for his Babel and Brokeback Mountain scores). Granted, Ghat is undeniably manipulative, but it is considerably more engaging than one expects. In fact, it is a very promising directorial debut by Rao. One of the better cinematic imports from the subcontinent in a number of months, it opens this Friday (1/21) at the Big Cinemas Manhattan and Big Cinemas Bombay.