If Mumbai Could Talk
Published on January 20th, 2011 | by Carlos J. Segura0
The casting of superstar Aamir Khan and Prateik Babbar is indicative (unintentionally one imagines for the most part) of the modus operandi of Kiran Rao’s “Mumbai Diaries,” a.k.a. “Dhobi Ghat.” Mr. Khan, best known stateside for the hugely entertaining “Lagaan,” is a reputed perfectionist who prefers to pick the right project as opposed to too many forgettable ones which earns him points—if this film is any indication then his reputed pursuit, at least, of a quality product is true—for being a Bollywood star with a taste for artistic ambition. He is, nevertheless, a megastar at the end of the day, instantly recognizable and consumed by millions. Though it is understandable for a huge star to aspire to transcend being the stuff of escapist fantasies it basically comes down to this: once a star, always a star.
However, balancing out Mr. Khan’s star wattage is the puppy-eyed, dreamy—in a potential hunky movie star way in the mold of Shahid Kapoor (though his character seems to prefer actors like Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt)—and sensitive Prateik Babbar in an understated breakout performance; of note: he is the son of Indian New Wave actress, Smita Patil (she was considered Shabana Azmi’s rival in terms of being the premier proper actress of her time which includes the ‘70s and ‘80s). Mr. Babbar’s character aspires to be anything but an art house darling; throughout the film Bollywood is on the periphery whether be it on televisions or in posters splashed across walls. It is Mumbai after all, the film production capital of India so it would only make sense to have the Bollywood dream be a part of the character of the city and the film.
Mr. Babbar plays a humble laundry collector/washer that one day begins a friendship with the upper class Shai (Monica Dogra), who clearly fetishizes his working class background, preferring to photograph him at work rather than in shirtless poses, which he requests of her in order to put his plan in motion of becoming the next Shahrukh Khan or Hrithik Roshan.
Countering the Bollywood-in-theory, art-house in execution plotline of the handsome but poor laundry boy who meets-cute with the beautiful and rich photographer runs the ever so slightly more interesting but still too flawed “emotional” arc of Mr. Khan (and by emotional one means shots of the character brooding in beautifully lit environments). His character, a well-to-do artist, finds some tapes one day in his apartment that belonged to the previous tenant, a lively young woman who relates her thoughts to the camera along with capturing snippets/impressions of daily life in Mumbai. Pro: the young woman is interesting and her impressions of Mumbai are interesting, fresh, and light. Con: Mr. Khan’s self-absorbed moping, which is a shame because Mr. Khan is actually a talented actor; its his character that sinks him like a stone.
The most interesting and consistent aspect of the film is its ability to capture the action and energy of Mumbai, which is head-spinning chaos; it makes New York City look like small town America. Traffic is hellish, everyone looks like they’re going somewhere, fast, and people are either very rich or very poor it seems; its spiritual relative could be Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding” though that film aimed its camera at New Dehli’s street life rather than Mumbai’s; interestingly both feature music by Midival Punditz which is a fusion of electronica and Indian instrumentation (a nice atmospheric touch that suggests a Mumbai that is increasingly becoming more global). The film itself is a limp fusion of art-house stylistics and some of the plotting of popular entertainment when it would have been wise to keep the popular influences even more on the periphery since it obviously aspires to critical lauding rather than major box office (not having singing and dancing and a running time of under 3 hours pretty much kills those chances), though Kiran Rao was perhaps hesitant to entirely leave out the demographic that regularly consumes the (popular) films of Mr. Khan. Instead of characters we get types; the most fully fleshed out character is the girl in the videotapes Mr. Khan finds. The stories are too cliché and meandering at the same time. The film is best appreciated if Mumbai is designated the lead character.