Dhobi Ghat, I believe is going down in the annals as one of the most avant-garde movie of Indian Cinema. We always identify Indian movies with the cliché of song and dance or boy meets girl and it is exactly what the Indian masses go looking for at the movie theatres. They want to escape from their harsh reality and the escapist cinema of ‘Bollywood’ provides just that dose of masala, or might we say an overdose? When movies like Dhobi Ghat come out, they are always subject to a lot of criticism on the part of many, either within the Indian movie fraternity itself, the media or the viewers due to the fact that they are different. Now we know that it takes time getting acquainted to difference and some might argue that the film is either too intelligent or over- pretentious to the likings of Indians. In one of the biggest democracy of the world with the biggest film industry, I believe that every movie maker can carve their own niche making the kind of movie that is true to them while at the same time gratifying the senses of those viewers in desperate search for a different kind of escape.
Dhobi Ghat is aesthetically set against the backdrop of Mumbai directed by first time director Kiran Rao, wife of Amir Khan. It is the story of Mumbai city and of its tenants who make their temporary dwelling become homes, memories left behind leaving space for new ones to be made. The people around which the story revolves are Arun (Amir Khan) the artist, Shai (Monica Dogra), a non-resident Indian on sabbatical leave in India, Munna (Prateik Babbar) a dhobi-walla and Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) who becomes Arun’s muse for his new paintings. The plot is not overarchingly difficult to understand, it is simplistic and there are no two brains about it, the lives of each character are entwined and this weaving of each other’s lives provides the fodder for the development of the story while promoting the narrative.
So what sets this movie apart? The first thing that grabs your attention is the form and technicality that went into the making of this movie, which has, to my knowledge never been attempted before in Indian cinema. The viewers are introduced to the movie with the images of real Mumbai via the usage of a subjective hand held camera being filmed by Yasmin (the idea of a metapicture (that is a film within a film...just a side note...). It sets the pace and the mood of the movie right from the beginning. The usage of the hand-held camera is very much prevalent throughout which provides a gritty, naked and real image of Mumbai city. The montage is equally commendable for it connects one scene to the other through various styles from the fixed camera to the hand-held or black and white still images.
The inherent theme that reverberates throughout Dhobi Ghat attests to the fact that this is a movie made by a woman. It definitely has that feminist streak which seeps through. Apart from Kiran Rao who is behind the camera, within the diegesis , that is, the fictional world of the movie, the two female characters Yasmin and Shai are also behind cameras, the latter capturing the city through photography and the former documenting her everyday activities in Mumbai. The age old adage of movie making always talks and infers to the male gaze whereby women are turned into objects under the scrutiny of what was a patriarchal society or maybe still is... But Kiran Rao’s movie is laced with the female gaze, which is less talked about and takes a subdued position in film theory. She has very cleverly made allusion to this female gaze in a very subtle way through her female protagonists whereby they are placed behind the voyeuristic tool which is the camera. Yasmin’s filmed images are present at regular intervals throughout Dhobi Ghat whereas Shai is constantly in search of new subjects to photograph and both these ladies at certain points can be found discretely capturing people without them knowing donning the role of the voyeur (a role reversal from the male gaze, much talked about in Hitchcock movies and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis) laying grounds for scopophilia. I think this is one Indian movie that gives immense pleasure to dissect. I have not gone into the nitty gritties but rather lightly touched upon certain aspects of Dhobi Ghat that made it interesting for me to watch and critically appreciate.
This concept of storytelling is not unknown to Hollywood, we confer to the fact that at times they are more creative and endearing with their cinematography and that is exactly why when someone from an industry we think is not liable of such creative genius takes the unorthodox path it always amazes. I recommend Dhobi Ghat to everyone who loves movies and movie making because it is off beat, unconventional and a fresh take on Indian cinema.
(Published on 18th Feb in L’Express Weekly)