Monday, January 24, 2011

Dhobi Ghat

The last time I really ‘wrote’ on this blog must have been nearly two years ago; the night before I left to the states. And that was a ‘real post – not a rant, or a recycled piece from a contribution to a newsletter – but one of those rare things, this irrepressible urge to pour my turbulence into words so I could put some form to the anxiety I was feeling, write it, spell-check it, publish it and perhaps put it to rest.

Once again, this time I feel compelled to write on the eve of my trip back to the states, although this time it feels less like a journey and more like a pit-stop of six months before I’m back for a longer stay during the Madras summer. The difference is that tonight that urge to write is not borne of turbulence, but a frenzied energy – the kind that you can’t put a lid on, and so you decide to just haul yourself out of bed and take to pen and paper.

It’s a number of things, the prospect of going back to a happy carefree sort of student bohemian existence (for the last time I suppose), the knowledge of what awaits (and not the paranoia of the unknown like last time), the restfulness of four months of utter bliss under sun and sea and sand, and a deep, deep appreciation for having felt the warmth of the Indian sun on the back of your neck, something for which I had to travel to the other end of the world and bear seven frigid months a year of winter and darkness to really come to treasure.

But in the midst of those mingled emotions, there’s one kernel of pure shining sentiment, a simple… satisfaction. Last night I watched Dhobi Ghat, Kiran Rao’s directorial debut, and the experience was so delightful, so unexpectedly simple and so subtly beautiful that I was quite unprepared. I’ve come to realize fairly recently that the more promising the trailers appear, the more underwhelming the movie is likely to be. Perhaps I’ve been watching the wrong sort of cinema. Or reading too many reviews before watching the damn film for myself.

Either way, what I was prepared for was a nice likeable movie, a bit of melancholy, some grit, some unbridled passion and color without which we wouldn’t know that this is India (or Mumbai as the case may be, lord knows I have enough friends who insist Mumbai is quite unlike anywhere else in India). In short, a nice enjoyable experience for the price of 120 rupees (whee @ TN state cap on multiplex prices) plus some odds and ends on popcorn and the like. Maybe even a rant on the blog if it turned out to be suitably horrible.

I’ll try not to do a review of it, only because I’m sure there’s be more than enough of those floating around on the internet shortly, and also because I’ll probably get bored of writing this post halfway through it if I attempt any sort of objectivity. Nevertheless, what I will say is that it’s a lovely example of cinematic story-telling; A simple tale of four individuals whose lives interlace in that inexplicably tangled, delicately messy way that can only happen in India.

There’s Aamir playing the impressively self-contained artist Arun, whom we meet during one of his exhibitions and whose discomfort at being thrust in the limelight and having to rub shoulders with Mumbai’s who’s who and regurgitate stale small-talk is almost physically exhausting for the audience to watch. Aamir inhabits this character in a way that is sublime, with an intensity that is all the more hypnotizing because it is so beautifully restrained. It is easy to play a recluse, to live in one’s head to the point of disconnecting from the world and appearing always at arm’s length, always aloof and cold and measured.

But in this movie, I felt almost privileged to be offered a glimpse of the simple treasures inhabiting his world, the self-content and satisfaction that is inwardly driven, the million tiny joys in a day that only a calm, uncluttered mind can perceive and relish. I remember feeling the same way while watching Amelie, the tactile pleasure of observing tiny, deliberate motions on the screen. The texture of a cherished object in close up, the languid movements of a character, the immensity of silence, like an amplifying tunnel for the cascade of loud colors flung haphazardly on the screen or the turbulence of inner emotions. In many aspects this is an incredibility different film, but I found the one common aspect – that palpable pleasure of watching a film so tactile and sensuous – richly rewarding.

Then there is the investment banker from the US who is in India on a sabbatical, to ‘clear her head’ and revel in photography and give in to the gush of vibrancy and life that is Mumbai. At times clueless and achingly vulnerable, Monica Dogra plays Shai with the fragility of a fresh newly-returned-to-India wide-eyed-doe. For all her considerable intellect and New York I-banker sharpness, she’s incredibly dense and oblivious to her affect on the dhobi she befriends and tests the edges of what is deemed ‘appropriate’ friendly behavior and the condescending good-naturedness that one typically extends to another so beneath one’s own social status in India. Yet, there is a definite vulnerability to her that makes you forgive her blind hunger and curiosity for Mumbai and its inhabitants and for Arun, even when it morphs into an obsession with a force of its own.

Munna, the dhobi whom Shai befriends, and played deftly by Prateik, is a true innocent. From the time his path crosses with Shai and she breaks protocol after social protocol and razes cluelessly through the gossamer threads of social customs and conditioning, I feared for the inevitable tragedy this arc of the story was headed to. Thankfully, that didn’t happen although the story veered dangerously close to it on more than one occasion, and we’re left instead with bruised egos and a lightly-trampled heart and one laughably impossible dream that seemed palpable for just one shining, brilliant, crazy moment under the canopy of Mumbai rains. Munna is perhaps the only character of true inner strength, of the resilience of the human spirit and its ability to heal, and bounce back with little more than a few forgotten dreams and some photographs to show for it.

[spoiler alert in this para!]

The last character, Yasmin, played by Kirti Malhotra is poignant and mesmerizing in her transformation from a true curious outsider to Mumbai to a depressed and lost wisp in the forgotten corners of a thundering city. Her simple pleasures in the discovery of a new wonderful experience, a new city, a recent marriage, morphs over the course of the city into a colorless grey tableau of her caged life. The transformation at once so sudden and so stark is shocking to say the least, and there’s the dawning horror of where this can only lead. Despite it all, I felt the poignancy of her initial happy existence and unbridled curiosity only heightened by the wastefulness of her eventual death.

There are loose ends in the movie of course. There’s the character of V, a women who appears in fleeting glimpses and appears to have a crushing ‘want’ for Arun. Whatever the nature of this yearning, be it love, or longing, or just the human need to expunge the loneliness and the darkness of being forgotten in a crowded city, I am merely left to speculate on her frame of mind and her backstory and her motivations. As for Arun, is he oblivious, so fully consumed by the pleasure of existing within his own world that he fails to notice her giant, sucking desperation for him… or is he merely indifferent, coldly observant of the nature of her want but failing to dredge up any inkling of emotion to act. Then there is the story of his ex-wife, whom we hear of through a couple of sentences and the registration of perhaps one of only two instances of true emotion on his face.

But despite the loose ends, or perhaps because of it, I feel the movie is richer by it. The unexplained edges to Arun only intensify his mystique and draws the audience in to his special world, while never letting us forget that we are mere spectators in his enveloping, intensely personal universe. Perhaps a bit like Mumbai, the final character in this film, whose pervasive presence one cant escape, and yet can never truly articulate except through clumsily cobbled-together fragments of trying to capture its essence, a few brushstrokes here, an unearthed and forgotten video-diary there, a tableau of black and white pictures.

Nevertheless, for now, I suppose that will do. The experience of this film is no less richer by it. It was I suppose a fitting cap to the end of my stay, and in a small way an encapsulation of everything I love about being back in India.

1 comment:

A said...

Glad to see some lifesigns :-) Sometimes I worry...