There's something Wong Kar-Wai in the roots of Dhobi Ghat. Incessant viewings of In the Mood for Love will undoubtedly stir the subconscious of a director; making her invoke rain in times of despair and hope, and making her innovatively lens in small cramped spaces like in Days of Being Wild. There is a conscious effort to steer away from too calculative a plot (this is something Wong Kar-Wai is notorious for, often writing a few pages of what needs to be shot only the night before), and a rock steady focus on characters, each at different ends of the Mumbai cross section: an artist, an investment banker NRI, a small-town young Muslim woman who has only just married and moved to the city, and of course a dhobi.
Yet something is amiss. While Wong Kar-Wai's works need repeated viewings to fully comprehend the vision of the director (the first is only to soak in the atmosphere), you will have no such problems with Kiran Rao's slice-of-life take. This is not necessarily a good thing considering the film is - let's call it - a mainstream experiment. It's hard to say that it's compromised, but it doesnâ't really go beyond the story it's trying to tell.
I say 'trying' because Dhobi Ghat is missing a crucial factor that any film (or book for that matter) needs to keep the audience engaged: conflict. Without conflict, no matter how many tears your character sheds on screen, no matter how poignant each scene may be in isolation, even 95 minutes is too long. When the end ('climax' is too dramatic a word) unhurriedly arrives, you've already seen it coming from a mile.
For a moment, however, let's assume that story/plot/conflict were given an intentional miss. You'd be surprised at the richness you'd be left with. Dhobi Ghat frames Bombay in a refreshing light, and this is saying a lot. As films - even indies - move away to Delhi and the hinterlands of India because the visual fatigue that Bombay suffers from, Dhobi Ghat basks in its unexplored glory. The handheld camera somehow manages to discover new angles, new light, new flares even, in shots of the city you'd hitherto seen.
You'd appreciate the attention to detail, things that camera doesn't necessarily focus on and force down your throat. Take the scene where Shai treats Munna to a drink at her house, which he instantly dislikes. There is no obvious indication as to what it might've been. We know he likes his cheap rum (vaguely established in the beginning) but clearly doesn't care for fancy whisky. All this is established in a long(ish) shot. This is a master move. Bollywood films tend to try and 'capture all', if the art department has done some work, it must be in focus. A close-up here, an establishing shot there. Dhobi Ghat steers clears of this arcane process, choosing instead to stay close to the characters. The milieu gently unravels itself as they go about their lives. The whisky, by the way is Laphroaig.
Some scenes are so intensely original and effective (although often contributing to story only obliquely), they need to be applauded. Here is a small selection: when the maid rattles off Tennyson's Brook, or when Shai is catching up on kitschy Bollywood all by herself (the unseen TV blares "Ye kaisa bakwas nashta hai!"). What about the scenes where Arun (Aamir Khan) is falling in love watching tapes of an unknown woman? They're palpable. What a fantastic job!
Given this, it's frustrating to stare at the loose ends - why is the old neighbor in a perennial stupor? Why exactly was Munna's brother killed? Why was Munna arbitrarily hunting rats? People who lend Rs. 3000 in a heartbeat don't kill rats as a secondary source of income, or do they? Shouldn't Shai - a feminist archetype - have gone beyond an intellectual 'we're friends' approach with Munna, if nothing else to prove to her 2D SoBo friends that all is fair in love or lust? And could we have more of Yasmin? Anything at all? In a film replete with co-incidences, maybe Arun could've gotten closer to meeting her before he completed watching the tapes?
The acting is well above par. Monica Dogra's Parsi-NRI act is spot on. It couldn't be more authentic. Kriti Malhotra tantalizes with her brief appearances. Prateik works wonders with his author-backed role. Aamir Khan's English is stilted, his artist act more solid, but his unspoken moments in love are the highlight of the film.
There are more reasons to watch Dhobi Ghat, than to not; but if one was to evaluate the snide remarks and general chatter of the patrons - a near full house - at the end of it, you'd have to think the film won't work beyond the niche audience.