Monday, January 24, 2011

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai diaries): Movie review

Kiran Rao's sensitive debut film engages not so much with plot and pacing, as it does with cityscapes and moments. The film achingly reflects on urban angst, alienation, loss, inspiration and hope. It is also, obviously, as the title suggests, a paean to Mumbai. The film doesn't spoon-feed solutions or nudge the viewer towards a preferred point of view, rather, it leaves the viewer to ponder over the proceedings, a watermark of intelligent film-making.
Investment banker, Shai, comes to Mumbai on a sabbatical and explores the city through her camera, and it is through her lens that the film truly comes alive. Black and white photographs still have that certain 'je ne se qua' and can capture subtleties that colour tends to blur out. She meets a laundryman, Munna, a migrant, who, apart from his day job washing clothes at Mumbai's famous 'Dhobi Ghat', moonlights as wannabe actor and night time rat-killer (I didn't know such a profession existed. The rat-killers have nothing else to get their prey with, except for large and unwieldily sticks). It is through their interactions that we see most of this fascinating city, shown here with all its treasures and pockmarks, its many landmarks and its dingy bylanes. Munna is hopelessly in love with Shai, but gives up the chase in the final frames of the film, when he realizes that the religious and class divides between them are just too wide to bridge. Shai also has a one night stand with Arun, a celebrated and introverted painter, who is perhaps lonely and searching for inspiration after his divorce. He finds his muse in the video diaries of his previous tenant, a bubbly newly wed Yasmin, only to later discover, to his horror, that she might have ended her lonesome and troubled life in that very apartment.
Performance wise the film clearly belongs to debutant Monica Dingra and the brilliant Prateik Babbar, whose performances ring so true you that you needn't have them speak at all. They come across as complete naturals against Aamir Khan's studied and understated Arun. Kriti Malhotra completes the fine acting effort from this largely inexperienced cast with her doe-eyed, heartbreaking portrayal of Yasmin. Also kudos to Tushar Kanti Ray's for his camera work and Gustavo Santaolalla for his haunting guitar work.
The film is sensitive, layered, nuanced and easy on your time. Those looking for a solid plotline will be disappointed with this ninety minute feature (though it could have been shorter by 5 -10 minutes...the whole 'Munna's brother/underworld' track being an unnecessary distraction). The city has millions of stories to tell and Rao chooses to tell but four of them... all representative of the modern urban malaise, so to speak, as well as serving as an exploration of fleeting but deep relationships. Not to say that Mumbai is portrayed on the whole, as a miserable and harsh place. The city's omnipresent character is best embodied in Arun's (and Yasmin's) aged, semi-paralytic neighbor, who in her continual presence, can witness all that happens around her, but can offer neither encouragement nor admonishment, comfort nor solace, advice nor reproach, as she watches those around her live, love, yearn, suffer and die.



Friday, January 07, 2011

A call to alms

First, a very happy 2011 to the three people who actually read this blog. Have a great new year ahead! :-)


I donated a sum of exactly $210.10 to charity in the whole of last year. Of that, $210 comprised of automated deductions by my employer from the monthly paycheck to a charity I know next to nothing about. The remaining 10 cents went into the X-mas donation box at a Subway outlet. By most accounts, this record of giving is quite simply, pathetic. And no, this post is not inspired by Mr Premji's $2 billion largesse. It's been at the back of my mind for a while now. And perhaps no action was taken on the 'giving money away' bit was because I saw this to be in direct conflict with the 'save as much cash and retire early' goal. But one can do both. The importance of giving cannot be over-emphasised in a world entrenched in pitiful inequality. There are many right-minded people out there running charities and organizations that make a difference everyday, against the hardest odds, assisting in places that the state has long forsaken, in areas where funding is dearer than onions. I remember looking out of my window in Kolkata at the 9 year old who sweeps the building floor and wondering if he went to school. And then glancing at the shriveled old lady at a Singapore food court and thinking if she could afford food, clothing and shelter. Helping the boy get to school and the lady the basics of urban existence requires money. And if you have some to spare, why not pitch in? If you do, in a way you're also helping yourself. The kid will get an education, perhaps excel in chemistry or math, and contribute to the next big medical breakthrough which helps save your near and dear ones, or, less dramatically, will grow up to be an honest teacher and spread his knowledge to generations of students. The old lady will lead a life of dignity, feel happy about her existence and do a great job at work, so when you head to her food court for a cup of coffee, you will get not only a wonderfully clean table, but a cheerful smile to go with your coffee and your day will be brighter for it. Giving has both very tangible and intangible benefits, both to the beneficiary and the donor.
There is a general belief that to give substantially prerequisites great wealth. A facetious argument, if there ever was one. Give what you can. Financial security has nothing to do with helping in small proportions. Every cent and every paisa makes a difference. So chose a cause that you are passionate about and give what you can to see a change, however small that may be. You'll feel good. Remember, you can't take it all with you when you go.