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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dhobi Ghat - A Spoilery Discussion

Maria from Filmiholic and Amrita from IndieQuill loved debutant writer/director Kiran Rao's Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) so much, they couldn't resist discussing it.  (Plus: Check out the Filmiholic review.)

The following is an extremely spoilery chat about everything from Aamir Khan's restrained sexiness to the outstanding performances by newcomers Monica Dogra, Prateik Babbar and Kriti Malhotra. We also talk about Mumbai as a possible fifth character, Gustavo Santaolalla's music, Tushar Kanti Ray's cinematography, and the various criticisms directed the way of this movie. 

Amrita: Okay, so Dhobi Ghat / Mumbai Diaries - do we love it?

Filmiholic: I loved it, but I'm not a born & bred Mumbaikar. I'm not even Indian, so I'm curious to hear your reaction.

Amrita: I loved it too!

Filmiholic: Ah ha!

Amrita: It’s one of those movies whose description didn't really do it much justice - it's so much more interesting and lovely than anything that’s been written about it so far would suggest. 
Did you like something in particular about it?

Filmiholic: Yes, I liked several things a lot. What comes to mind first right now is the music, because I've been listening to Gustavo Santaolalla's music a lot the last few days.

Amrita: It was perfect!

Filmiholic: I thought it was unexpected for an Indian film, and often rather melancholy, which is why I loved it, probably! If you had told me they were going to have a cavaquinho and a bunch of Indian instruments, I would have thought "Ummm, sure, okay...." But it all went together beautifully.  
Was there something you really loved?

Amrita: A combination of several things, I think, and how they all came together to make this one movie that's really quite ephemeral. So much of the film is dependent upon the moods that Kiran Rao stages at various points. And it's a combination of the music, the amazing cinematography, and the actors' performance. After a long time, I was watching an Indian movie that was firing on all cylinders, you know?

Filmiholic: Yes! That's a great description of it.

Amrita: Also, this is proof positive that more women need to make movies. The way the camera followed the actors, especially the male ones, was significantly different from how a male director would have presented them. For example, there's that scene in which Prateik is standing under the glow of a naked lightbulb and he's all sweaty in these gross surroundings, and they shoot him in profile - it's a shot I've seen in so many arthouse movies made in India before: "sweaty poor person in grotty urban shack". I think people like Om Puri spent the entire 80s doing shots like those. But this time, there was a certain vulnerability and sexiness to that shot. We weren't just watching a character, we were also being presented with the maleness of that character in a way. Obviously this has to do with Prateik being a hottie but even so... What do you think?

Filmiholic: And he (Munna) was so guileless. I remember being really touched and impressed by Prateik in Jaane Tu... so I had good expectations for him here, but he so exceeded them. Yes, agreed, he is indeed a hottie. But the way in this role he was also vulnerable, and a stand-up guy, and unaware of the effect his smoking hotness was having on people around him. Like when he does that shirtless pose when Shai's photographing him,

Amrita: Yes! Great scene!

Filmiholic: I really just took that as him aping what he's seen filmi guys do, not him thinking "I'm too sexy for my shirt" And by the way  it just occurs to me now, but three cheers for how the wardrobe people got his clothes right. When watching those Saturday morning desi entertainment shows here in the US, whenever I see them interviewing Bombay guys exiting cinemas to ask them about X or Y film they just saw, even if you can tell the dude may not have a stack of money in his wallet, 9 times out of 10 he'll be wearing a somewhat flash, fashion-forward shirt, and probably with some accessories, and I’ve even observed this just being in the city – Mumbai guys often have quite a particular style and daring and a bit of the peacock about them, and I don't observe the same in Madras when I'm there, no offense intended to the lovely men of Tamil Nadu, who have their own different vibe going on.

Amrita: No, you're right! It’s one of the things I noticed.

Filmiholic: The white turtleneck sweater...

Amrita: Also the Salman Khan poster and the Being Human bracelet or whatever that's an exact copy of the one Salman is always wearing - the chunky silver chain with a large turquoise in the center?

Filmiholic: Yes, the bracelet caught my eye too. It reminds me of the men in Buenos Aires... well, the women too. You may not have a lot of dough, but you always want to be sharp when you leave the house.

Amrita: But yes, there's a guilelessness to Munna that is irresistible. And I'm pretty sure Shai ended the movie completely in love with him but unable to cross that class divide long enough to admit it to herself or to him in the face of what everyone from her bai to her friends have said about her hanging out with an illiterate dhobi. And the fact that she punctured the fantasy by surprising him at his second job drew a firm line under that dream for Munna, I think, and is only reinforced by his brother’s death.

Filmiholic: Yes, the ending had me on the verge of tears. I so so so wanted them to end up together.

Amrita: Right?

Filmiholic: But that's how I am. And didn't it break your heart how he let her go in the end, and smiled as he walked away into the traffic!

Amrita: OMG, that moment in which Munna leans over her as she lies sleeping in the chair and then thinks better of it? I think that was the moment that I realized that he was never going to step over that line and I was simultaneously happy for him because I would have died if she'd woken up and flipped out at him, which I bet she would have done because Shai is not very good at managing her way out of delicate situations with anything resembling finesse, but also sad because he'll never get the princess. And he totally deserves anything his itty bitty heart desires!

Filmiholic: I'm getting teary-eyed just thinking about it.

Amrita: I kept thinking Arun would somehow find Yasmin and rescue her from her horrible husband because you could see that she was exactly Arun's type. And that Shai would somehow make it work with Munna. And of course, neither of those things happened.

Filmiholic: Oh, very interesting, Amrita, that never occurred to me about Yasmin and Arun.

Amrita: Oh yeah, I thought that Arun and Yasmin would be perfect together right off the bat. The moment Shai walked out of the bedroom the morning after and started chattering nonstop without paying any attention whatsoever to the undercurrents in the room or bothering to read Arun, who is definitely one of those people who requires to be read rather than questioned, I knew those two were a huge mistake. Yasmin, on the other hand, is bright and naive but also romantically involved with Bombay in a way that Shai who studies it scrupulously is not, just like Arun. The movie slowly reveals her to be someone who spends a lot of time studying other people. Had she and Arun ever met up, they'd have had a (very quiet) love affair for the ages, I bet. My heart rather aches at the thought.
What did you think of it?

Filmiholic: Hmmm, that really never occurred to me. I did wonder what Arun's ex- was like, because I thought he was just one of these intense guys that few people can get near and who are emotionally locked away somewhere, etc. But now that I consider what you've said and I think of the painting and the way he took to wearing her chain and ring, you've given me something to think about when I see the movie again in the future.
What I rather liked about the film as well was how, for me at least, Aamir was in the background. I know he was 1 of the 4 main characters, but for me he really stepped back after the initial love scene, and the 3 "youngsters" came to the fore.

Amrita: Yeah, he’s objectified by Shai and is an unknown observer of Yasmin as well as a bit player in Munna’s life but the emotional core of the film lies elsewhere. Did you think Arun was just being an emotional vampire with Yasmin?

Filmiholic: Emotional vampire! That would be a great follow-up song for the Patna ke Presleys!

Amrita: Hee hee!

Filmiholic: Oh and can we talk about the housewife? She and Munna were doing the horizontal mambo, no?

Amrita: In a creepy cougar way, yes. She made my stomach turn from the get go.

Filmiholic: That was my take, immediately, but I heard one critic in India wonder about that, like "And there seems to be a possible relationship hinted at with a bored housewife", and I was thinking, "Possible??"

Amrita: Hinted? Hahahah!
So, going back for a minute to the Aamir thing - I've been saying this over and over again in various places that I'd like to see Aamir shut up a bit more and let his movies speak for themselves as well as his characters. And then he did that for this movie and guess what?
I was right!

Filmiholic: Ha ha!

Amrita: I was soooooooo right! I've never found Aamir sexy in any way, but in this movie he was totally smoking! Male sexiness is all about presentation. Ghajini is proof that it’s not enough for a guy to work out and strip off. He might have great muscles in that movie but he looked like he lived under a bridge and made his living scaring unwary travelers. Now, maybe I'm projecting because I know his wife is the director, but it really felt like she was taking us on a tour of what exactly she finds attractive about him. And I have to say, I wouldn't kick that out of my bed either.

Filmiholic: I know it’s bad for you, but I did love him smoking non-stop in this film.  We see less and less of it nowadays since everyone’s so conscious about not making it look attractive to young, impressionable minds.  (It cracks me up when Star Vijay runs Tamil films with a character who smokes or drinks, as all of a sudden, a crawl of Tamil script floats across the screen that I can only imagine says “Smoking/drinking can be hazardous to your health”.)
And I did think the love scene with Shai and Arun was beautifully done. It was telegraphed and often out of focus in such a way that it left you wanting more.  It was sexy and sensual in only a matter of seconds. And yet it showed you no cleavage, no one biting their lower lip, no hand clenching the sheet in ecstasy, the usual tropes.

Amrita: The toe ring thing was excellent. Heh.

Filmiholic: Yes, that was a lovely detail.

Amrita: It was more of a discovery than a romp.

Filmiholic: And it was so real.... the drinks, the looking at books, the thing leads to another... I was so amazed that Kiran made a debut film that felt like it had been made by someone who had been making movies for years.  Not that I didn’t think she could, just that I wouldn’t have expected such a complete first film from anyone.

Amrita: It was very confident, yes. And masterful. You know in cases like these, when the first time director has a famous husband who has a reputation for putting his oar in and casts him in the movie as well, there's always speculation that maybe the more famous person partly directed it or something. Especially because they’ve been saying that he’s ghost-directed almost every successful movie he’s made over the past 10 years. I find it interesting that no one said anything of the kind about Kiran and her film. Possibly because everyone has seen Aamir direct and knows he couldn't pull off something this restrained and wispy about subjects who pack such a wallop. Even its sweetness is gentle, not mawkish.

Filmiholic: Why do you think he attracts so much scorn as well as admiration?

Amrita: Aamir? I don't think he attracts scorn. I think I'm a party of one struggling against an overwhelming tide of love.

Filmiholic: No, don't be so sure, dearest.

Amrita: Seriously?!

Filmiholic: When I was emailing back and forth with some friends, before going to meet him for the first time to interview him about Peepli Live, someone, don't recall who, said, in effect "Oh, Mr. Holier-Than-Thou...." and someone else piled on and said something about having a low tolerance for all the self-righteousness, or words to the effect.

Amrita: Hahahah! Are you sure that wasn’t me? I know I've been fairly strident about his evangelical approach to filmmaking. I’m sure he's perfectly nice in person and it's not like I object to his work or what he's trying to accomplish, but he doesn't come off very well in print and it's gotten to a point where I look at each new Aamir movie with the dread I once reserved for Math homework.

Filmiholic: He was really nice in person, it was disarming....Also, I just wanted to say that I really applaud and embrace Aamir for doing a brilliant director's commentary on the DVD of the film. It was packed with interesting facts, and he was terrific, even though it was just him alone doing all the talking and explaining.

Amrita: Oh, really? Now that is good news. Change I can believe in!

Filmiholic: And to bring the loop back to Dhobi Ghat, I will happily say that I applaud Aamir Khan Productions for their approach to marketing a film, at least as far as their outreach to journos is concerned. I know Aamir was flayed alive by a lot of people for being too hands-on with Peepli Live, but I thought the website and the materials about Dhobi Ghat were lovely and informative and helpful.

Amrita: Ahem. Now, there are a lot of people out there who didn't like this film. They felt it was pretentious and slow and somehow un-Indian. Has this been your experience?

Filmiholic: Not at all, and I was dismayed by so many of those comments. What did your friends think of the film?

Amrita: My friends in real life don't really watch Bollywood all that much and the only friend that does is a huge Aamir fan, so Aamir could basically film himself brushing his teeth and my friend would find it fantastic and illuminating so I don't have real world references in this area, I’m afraid.

Filmiholic: HA HA. Okay, what did you think of Monica and Kriti's debuts?

Amrita: I fell a little in love with Yasmin myself - she was such a fresh little daisy with her game face on, the kind of person at whom you smile instinctively the way Arun does when he’s watching her, and Kriti makes her wilt slowly bit-by-bit on those tapes. It was a great performance.

Filmiholic: Wasn't she something!

Amrita: Monica's portrayal of Shai was also great from a completely different angle. I mean, Shai is such a frickin' 13 year old and super annoying and unaware. I wanted to kick her ass all the time. So yes, that was a fine job as well.

Filmiholic: And she really did the whole languid and entitled rich girl thing well. I thought they both were such amazing discoveries. Really, I think all 3 of them will be hard pressed to top their work here in their next film.
What did you think about the critiques that the film is more of a mood piece but has no narrative structure? I really didn't feel that way.

Amrita: Neither did I. It's certainly a finely crafted mood piece, but it definitely has a narrative structure to it. When somebody says X movie lacks a narrative structure, I take it to mean that it’s chaotically strung together with random bits of information that add up to nothing. In Dhobi Ghat, however, everything is absolutely connected and headed somewhere. It's very light and elegant and lacks a dun-dun-DUN! approach to filmmaking but I don't get where that particular criticism is coming from.
What do you think they're trying to say by that - that it doesn't Say Something like a good little art film should or that it's too esoteric or what?

Filmiholic: I don't know, really. I mean, the questions that we have at the start..... will they get together or won't they? Who's the girl on the tapes and what happens to her? We follow the stories from A to B and get the answers.
Did you get a sense that it was a fair portrayal of Mumbai? Maybe "fair" is not the right word.... let's say, accurate?

Amrita: Well, here's the thing - I don’t think Mumbai is a character in this movie. It's simply not that kind of film. It's about four characters who exist within this city and you can make the argument that they would never have a connecting story in any other city, but it's not about Mumbai per se. It's very definitely about these people. And they each love or, in the case of Munna, depend upon this city in their own ways. They each attribute certain qualities to the city and describe it terms that hold meaning for them but their relationship with Mumbai doesn’t so much tell you about the city itself, but rather who these characters are.
Yasmin, for example, sees the city as a lonely place surrounded by the beautiful void of the sea which keeps her secrets and leaves her alienated. I don’t get any particular insight into Mumbai with this, but I do see who Yasmin is as a person long before she begins to vocalize her problems.
That said, I think it portrays their separate realities very well. These are things that I could imagine taking place in Mumbai with these people.

Filmiholic: Did you think it was ridiculous how they kept just missing each other, and/or 
running into each other? I didn't have a problem with it. Happens in NYC all the time. Millions of people and you still bump into folks you know all the time.

Amrita: Yeah, that’s been my experience as well. I’m a city girl born and bred and I didn’t think twice about it because it happens all the time. And even apart from the usual coincidence aspect, the story provides a good reason why these people keep coming into contact, however peripherally, with each other – both Shai and Arun are part of the minority upper class mining the massive underclass in the search for authenticity as it relates to their art. It makes sense that they’d end up in the same neighborhoods. Now that I think about it, though, it does feel as though all of Mumbai only has one dhobi. And he has, like, three customers if he needs a second job on top of all that.

Filmiholic: Can I tell you two small things I loved in the film? First, the goofy face Munna makes when Shai asks him if he's ever been in love or has a girlfriend? That half-embarrassed, half-"as if!” look. And the scene of them in the taxi, with him clutching the cat and the brother with the goldfish. I really thought this was going to be the kind of movie where they'd just leave them behind because that’s the way life can be tough and you’re poor, you don’t have the middle-class luxury of coddling your pets. So, I was so happy to see the fictitious cat and goldfish not being tossed away to fend for themselves.

Amrita: I love that he has a kitty! And that he loves it enough to take it with him. That was the best surprise the movie sprung on me.

Filmiholic: Yes! Munna, the perfect guy. You know he had to be a character in a movie! No one's that good in real life!

Amrita: Truth! So, to circle back, do we love this movie?

Filmiholic: Yes! We love this movie!

Amrita: Okay, it's official then! People should watch it if they haven't already!

Filmiholic: One piece of trivia in closing?

Amrita: Absolutely!

Filmiholic: Did you realize, my dear Amrita, that this is the 2nd film in as many years to feature a star-crossed love between a dhobi and a woman? In 2011 it was Dhobi Ghat, in 2010, Madrasapattinam starring Tamil fillum star Arya (as the dhobi). Set at the dawn of independence in 1947... the object of his affections, a young British girl visiting her father in Madras.

Amrita: AHAHAHAH! How many days before Wikipedia is edited with the scornful entry – “Hindi remake of Tamil film”? Place your bets now!



  1. That housewife angle was teased with very lazily so I chose to take it positively ;) I mean, I've lived in Bombay and observed how thin the line is between social strata so it's sometimes very normal for someone like Munna to sit and share personal details like that with her.

    I agree it is a perfectly valid view to have but I wonder why it was so ambiguously presented.

  2. Amri.. is that thing about aamir brushing his teeth thing about me :P

  3. Despite seeing the trailers for it (three of them, actually) before Tees Maar Khan AND a friend of the distributor gchatting me to see if I had any ideas about where they could show this because the usual place was booked, it never showed up. BETH STOMP. It sounds lovely and amazing! Maybe it will show up on Netflix instant really quickly (like No One Killed Jessica, which was available less than a month after its theatrical release)....

  4. Hey Beth - one of the scheduled prints of Dobhi Ghat never made it to Melbourne either so there were all sorts of last minute changes to the screening times and locations.

    Amrita and Filmiholic: This film really worked for me when Kiran Rao used the camera to observe the little details of people's lives and behaviours, and the flow of the rainy city life. I absolutely love the 2 small details you mentioned too - especially the cat! I wasn't quite as taken by Aamir or Monica as you were. I found Aamir's acting lovely and low key, until it became very actory just for a few crucial seconds in the scene when he realised how Yasmin's story ended. And Shai was cursed with some of the most inane and clunky dialogue so I just wanted her to shut up. I put most of that on Kiran Rao not Monica, but her story thread was the weakest for me. I can't say enough good things about Prateik or Kriti - they were just beautiful and I loved every moment they were on screen. And at the end I was quietly cheering that Munna and his enigmatic half smile took off. (And it wouldn't be me if I didn't have terribly shallow thoughts)- Maybe a nice new cougar would adopt him? Just an idea...I'm free for the sequel :)

  5. Great discussion, Amrita, Filmiholic. Amrita, re Arun and Yasmin - I didn't think he fell in love with her actually. I felt he needed her to fall in love with the city (he agrees with Shai when she says "everybody needs a guide") - and he rediscovers his art and his muse (Bombay) because of Yasmin.
    Agree with Temple that Aamir was fine till that awfully theatrical gasp he does when he reels with shock at the end.

  6. Hi,
    The discussion was quite zesty.
    I wanted to add a view.. it struck me that Munna was watching over Shai, who was watching over Aamir, and in turn he was watching Yasmin. So the movie was definitely had a narrative structure.

    Most go to see a movie thinking of it like a balance sheet taken out at the end of the financial year.. With a clear profit (couples get together) or loss (they die).
    This movie was more like a journal, just putting in entries and leaving for us (the audience) to decide what the end would or could have been!!
    I loved it..