‘Dhobi Ghat’ by Kiran Rao – Narration of A Layered City

Anita Dogra as Shai
Anita Dogra as Shai

Two types of subaltern constructions were very visible in Dhobi Ghat: Munna, the Dhobi-migratory worker, and Yasmin, the oppressed Muslim housewife. Munna’s character is a migrant worker but different to the Tapori stereotype found in mainstream Indian films. In the opening titles of the movie, we see a worker on a construction site, and in one shot he is juxtaposed to the image of the sun rising across Mumbai. Constructed through the eyes of of the director Kiran, visually the film captures the architectural contrast of a postcolonial colossal concrete structures and creek views lived by the elite, in contrast with old Mumbai middle class ‘chawl’ living , the dhobi ghat and the Dharvi slums.  The binaries of class drawn by the director are unmistakable. These binaries are well presented by the inter-class interaction between the characters of Munna (migrant dhobi by day- rat killer by night), Shai (US returned investment banker) and Arun (loner artist).

The film opens beautifully with Mumbai in the Monsoons shown through Yasmin’s taxi ride with she saying “aae hue to sirf  5 mahinay ho gaye hain phir bhi sab naya sa lagta hai” to the taxi driver who is a migrant worker from her home state Utter Pardesh.

Pratiek Babbar as Munna
Pratiek Babbar as Munna

Generally migrant life is characterized by conditions of loneliness and a desire to return home is often connected with migratory workers but Munna aspires to be an actor who dreams to break through the class barrier by making it big in Bollywood (as Mumbai film industry is fondly called). Munna is represented as a hybrid of subaltern and Tapori. Attempts to mask a subaltern identity with the veil of stardom presents Munna as a vulnerable migrant easily susceptible to middle class exploitation. The embarrassment Munna feels about his impoverishment makes him try to hide his subaltern identity.

Kriti Malhotra as Yasmin
Kriti Malhotra as Yasmin

The representation of Yasmin in Dhobi Ghat is  articulated in the most innovative way. Her treasure discovered by Arun contains her video letters to her brother Iqbal, some silver jewelry. In some ways, Yasmin records her experiences as video diaries, addressing the camera and also the audience, thus actively making herself visible (although only through Arun). The video camera is technology of  liberation in this, empowering the subaltern with a voice then a further interpretation through Arun and the audience for authentic subaltern self-representation. In many ways, it is the act and not the experience that is of significance since the gaze in the context of a video diary is controlled and determined by the subaltern, not a mediator. The gaze of the artist that results in subaltern objectification.  Hence Munna is also merely a source of ‘fascination’ for Shai. Arun refers to Mumbai: “To Mumbai my muse, my whore, my beloved” ironically all three male perspectives of the female subaltern.

That silent old lady in Arun’s neighborhood, she says nothing throughout the movie, though saying a lot through her eyes. She’s a silent spectator, just like the city of Mumbai. Mumbai is the fifth character of Dhobi Ghat. The cinematographer of  the film has captured the essence of both ‘Purani’ Mumbai and the world class city its envisioned to be. I have been to Mumbai a few years back. Dhobi Ghat invokes a feeling in you to go back and explore it again. Mumbai the city of dreams and desires, the city of indifference, the city of so many layers. Dhobi Ghat is a fitting tribute to the fascinating city of Mumbai.

Karachi and Mumbai have far too many similarities to go unnoticed.  Some of them being unabated exponential growth , owing to an exodus of immigrant population, crippling infrastructure, growing nativism and communalism, high population density, vertical growth, splintering of kachi abadis and being a magnet to aspirations. And to quote from ‘Mumbai Fables’ both are “cities of excesses, of profiteering and exploitation, of aspirations for justice and equality in the face of terrible injustices and inequality” – Gyan Prakash. Karachi continues to be a silent spectator to the crime, communal and mafia warfare, rioting, politics of manipulation, class rift, corruption, target killings and the forced shutdowns it is subjected to day in day out. Karachi continues to silently go through it all.

Both cities representing dystopic images of dysfunctional urban living.

Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao
Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao





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