It begins with the rains. The rains that are so integral to and synonymous with Bombay. It’s several emotions at the same time with the sky opening up, falling down, shedding tears but also cleansing the souls and washing away the sins. The rains that people of Bombay miss and dread at the same time, revel in and complain at the same time. It is this dichotomy in lives and characters and people that is presented beautifully in Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat.
Raju was the dhobi who used to visit our apartment in Andheri, which is far far away from the universally familiar localities in the stories of Dhobi Ghat – Mahalaxmi, the town areas, Colaba, Mohammad Ali Road etc (In the book I am reading – Saadat Hasan Manto’s Stars From Another Sky, he refers to Malad as the “village” outside Bombay! That’s around 1940s I guess). Raju used to visit our building around 9 PM. And often, he used to finish collecting/distributing the clothes and then sit on our couch and talk about everything from politics, cricket, the local areas, Andheri and occasionally even his life and family. When I saw Munna being lectured by that lady in her house, it reminded me of Raju. It reminded me of that unspoken liberty, comfort and space for each other that develops between two people no matter which social strata of society they come from. A limited one of course. That is something very Bombay. You see that between Munna and Shai, Munna and Arun, Yasmin and Arun. It’s captured with accurate precision in a seemingly throwaway moment, when Shai runs into Munna and his friends at a cinema theater. If you’ve lived in Bombay, you experience it all the time.
The remarkable feature of Dhobi Ghat is that it’s not just a check list of things that define Bombay. You can probably single out at least one film every year for that. Yes, Kiran Rao does check a few things off like the Ganpati Visarjan, Ramazan time food, Chowpatty, the Irani chai-bun maska at cafes etc. But she goes a bit further by recording those existential themes too. Nobody knows who Yasmin is. Yasmin might not even be from the real world. We see a lot of Bombay through her eyes, from different angles as an outsider. Arun derives his creative juice from her. This is another trait that won’t go amiss in that city. No matter the size and population of the city or the feeling of loneliness that it engulfs you in, you’ll always find yourself in a microcosm. No matter your apathy or interest in gossip or voyeuristic longings, stories of people around you manage to fall in your way, more often than not unconsciously. It’s to Kiran Rao’s credit that she treads this path subtly with a character that could be anyone’s imaginary friend.
Sidvee here articulates on Bombay and Dhobi Ghat in ways only he can. Do read.
I think the video above is making its second appearance in this blog. Forget the cliched song and instead, focus on the images. If you notice carefully, you’ll see the same set people in some of the photographs. Nothing defines Bombay better than that. And in films of recent times , nothing defines Bombay better than Dhobi Ghat.