Dhobi Ghat, the directorial debut of Indian filmmaker Kiran Rao, earns its merits through being relatable on a universal, human level while maintaining its esoteric and unique Indianness. She doesn’t pan through the grandeur of the bustling metropolis of Mumbai but keenly observes, through a hyperlinked storyline, the people and the culture of a city that is one of the world’s largest and most populated cities, thus revealing the intimate, diverse lives of its inhabitants.
The film follows four stories, all interconnected through the cityscape and the daily workings of Mumbai. Shai (Monica Dogra) is an Indian-American investment banking consultant on a sabbatical. Arun (Aamir Khan) is an artist who looks to buy a new apartment and further his career. Munna (Prateik Babbar) is a dhobi (washerman) whose clients include Arun and Shai. Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) is a young Muslim newlywed who we see only through her video recordings, which Arun plays on his TV.
We have all met the characters of Dhobi Ghat in our lives: a struggling dreamer, a woman caught in a bad marriage, a girl looking for a little adventure or a loner trying to make it big. Rao maintains a dedication to realism that works against the cliched tropes and childish generalizations of mainstream Bollywood cinema.
From the beginning, as Shai meets Arun, their connection is never rushed or given an excuse for; we are not coerced into believing in a ‘love at first sight’ connection which Bollywood and Hollywood films force feed us as plausible. We are offered the possibility that their first interaction is simply based on being drunk and attracted to each other—something that goes beyond the traditional Indian social conduct portrayed in films.
Through curious excavation and a heartwarming portrayal of ordinary characters, we start to understand a bigger picture of the human connection: its euphoric temptations and its tragic downfalls. Kiran Rao’s enigmatic Dhobi Ghat is a deep meditation of Mumbai that truly brings the city to life.
Dhobi Ghat is available to stream on Netflix.
Soham Gadre is a writer and filmmaker in Washington D.C. He is a staff writer for Film Inquiry and has contributed to Vague Visages, Hyperallergic, Peephole Journal, and FrameLand. He is currently in production for his first short film as writer and director. His writing and film work can be found on his website.