Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Global Sensibilities: Kiran Rao on "Dhobi Ghat"

“Is it possible to have some milk for my tea?” enquires Kiran Rao expectantly and the attendant flunkeys swarm in with everything from artery-clogging full cream to a watery substance that’s trying to pass itself off as milk. The hedge fund managers, think tank boffins and quango executives lunching on ludicrously expensive fish and white wine at the imaginatively named May Fair Bar at the May Fair Hotel gaze curiously at the tumult at the far end of the posh establishment which has been taken over by the London Film Festival. Rao's directorial debut "Dhobi Ghat" is screened at LFF 2010 and she is doing an upstanding job of concealing any nerves, remaining ebullient and chatty in spite of the scrum of journalists, Film Festival cronies and PR hangers-on.

No wonder Rao is hot property at the moment. "Dhobi Ghat" was first screened to rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival at the toe end of the summer. And after its first showing during the 54th BFI London Film Festival the audience cheered and applauded. There's a triumphant air about Rao as well as a sense of relief that the acclaim and admiration has nothing to do with the fact that she happens to be married to Amir Khan; the most popular, widely respected, not to mention bankable actor in Bollywood today.
Set in the teeming, monsoon-drenched megalopolis that is Mumbai, “Dhobi Ghat” is a tale of four lives. Arun (Amir Khan) is a dour and troubled artist (as if there ever was one that wasn’t dour and troubled). Shai (Monica Dogra) is an affluent banker on a sabbatical from New York who moonlights as a photographer and is – like many NRI’s – utterly charmed by the beauty, chaos and contradictions of her motherland. Munna (Prateik Babbar) is a rare specimen of a hunky laundryman (dhobi) with dreams of making it in Bollywood. On the fringes of this triumvirate is Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a young bride trying to navigate her way through a new domestic arrangement in an intimidating new city. The film casts a contemplative look at the lives of these people from vastly divergent social backgrounds and how their lives interact. The Dhobi Ghat – a vast space filled with row upon row of concrete wash pens manned by vest-clad men pounding away at the city’s dirty laundry represents a sense of rejuvenation, rebirth, the cyclical nature of life and the city itself; eternally dying and resurrecting itself. Ultimately, "Dhobi Ghat" is a graceful and intimate homage to a city that thrills, terrifies and intrigues in equal measure.

It’s an impressive debut for the 35-year-old Rao who also wrote and co-produced along with her husband. Originally from Bengal, Rao has called Mumbai home for the best part of her adult life and her love of the city comes through elegantly. Having worked numerously as a producer and assistant director on a number of high profile productions including ‘Lagaan’, ‘Swades’ and ‘Monsoon Wedding’, it’s a massive - not to mention intimidating – moment for the diminutive director. "It was slightly terrifying screening in London. Having sat in your dark little cave and created something, only for it to be put out there in the open to be judged. It is nerve-wracking and after the screening finished I could feel my entire body just aching from the tension. But it was such a relief that people connected with it as well as they did", she says.

And of course being Mrs Amir Khan and the writer-director of his new film brings with it a whole new set of expectations, not least because “Dhobi Ghat” is Khan’s follow up to 2009’s “3 Idiots”, a critical as well as commercial triumph, the box office success of which took on proportions unseen in India. “While we were making the film we didn’t even think about what expectations there would be. We just wanted to create something that we believed in; an art-house film that would appeal to a global audience. But after Amir Khan was cast in it, the expectations began to build up. And of course even more people are interested in what Amir Khan’s wife is making!” she adds candidly.

Whilst anything that features a star with such mainstream appeal as Amir Khan in a starring role can hardly be called to belong to the Indie, Art House genre, "Dhobi Ghat" remains at its heart, a small, intimate, unpretentious and deeply personal work. Rao’s screenplay is excellent, creating a story that is thought-provoking if unexceptional. “When I wrote the screenplay, I didn’t think of a particular genre. I wrote it the way I know how to write, which is not in a very structured form but adding some structure later on to these people's lives. After I had finished it, the one thing I did know was that this film would be made on a really small budget - under a million dollars. Primarily because I knew it wouldn't be easy to sell the film in India. And I didn't want anybody to be out of pocket because of me! But then Amir came on board and the budget kind of went through the roof. I don’t hold a grudge against him though!”

With a superstar on board, the budget ballooning and expectations on the rise, it would have been far easier for the first time director to have switched gears, altering the tone and pitch of "Dhobi Ghat" and pitching the same film to a mainstream audience. To her immense credit however she resisted the temptation. “Once Amir was on the film, I was trying to figure out how we should keep to the original premise of the film and escape pandering to mainstream expectations,” she says.

The most attractive thing about "Dhobi Ghat" is its unresolved state. Rao says the idea of the film sprang from her experiences of moving house in Mumbai, a city where residential space is at a premium and vacant spaces are snapped up as soon as they become available. One of the things that "Dhobi Ghat", at its heart, reflects is India’s eternal battle between the desire for personal space and an environment that is ever more crowded and inhibiting. "I had to move a lot in Mumbai when I lived there as a single woman”, Rao says. “You’re constantly forced to inhabit a space that was occupied by someone else literally hours before you moved in. A place which was intimate to them and they called home and where they suffered, celebrated, cried and where their deepest secrets were kept. All of a sudden it became a space where I was now doing the same things. I began thinking about what I shared with those people and whether they had left part of their legacy behind, part of their fate in what I was now calling home. There were times when I wondered who was going to come and occupy this space that I've lived when I leave and whether they will in turn think about my secrets and disappointments and joys.” That dynamic between tenants past, present and future and everything unseen that exists between them is ultimately manifested in the work of the artist Arun; giving it colour and texture and attempting to give meaning to that which inextricably binds us all.

"Dhobi Ghat" is also an attempt to shed light on the social and cultural disparities that continue to diminish the achievements of the new India, a subject that Bollywood has either shied away from or is prone to view through rose-tinted lenses. “The idea that love can conquer all and that your wealth or social standing or anything else is unimportant have always been very easy to get past in Hindi cinema. In spite of Mumbai being very progressive, where caste and social prejudice rarely affect personal relationships, there are still these invisible divisions that exist between people. I wanted to explore how far a relationship between two people from different backgrounds could go”, Rao says pensively. “The problem is that people don’t share common cultural spaces. For instance, a middle-class person could have a great relationship with a Dhobi or a sweeper woman but they would never sit at the same table and have a meal together because those delineations are so deeply rooted. Beginning to share a common cultural space is vitally important. I think it is happening, very slowly, but it is happening”.

2010 has pledged much in terms of Bollywood films which promised to appeal to a global audience, an audience which is increasingly in thrall of the confounding charms of India. By and large however these films have failed to deliver, instead offering up slightly edgier variations on hackneyed Bollywood themes. “Dhobi Ghat” has certainly broken that trend and is an accomplished and compelling work helmed by an exciting young talent and starring a star beloved in India and abroad.

- Vijitha Alles

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