Aamir Khan productions come with a lot of baggage, given his reputation for being self-consciously highbrow, condescending toward the cinema traditions that made him famous, and caring too much about what the West thinks of his movies. Whether that's deserved or not - I don't follow his interviews closely enough to weigh in on that - his latest release stands on its own merits. Written and directed by his wife Kiran Rao, Dhobi ghat ("washerman's wharf") is at its best an engaging meditation on the ephemeral nature of life in Mumbai.
Shai (Monica Dogra) is an American-born banker on a sabbatical of self-discovery in Mumbai. An aspiring photographer, she combs the city looking for subjects to shoot. She befriends a hard-working washerman named Munna (Prateik Babbar), who introduces her to some of the city's grittiest and most colorful quarters. She also meets a brooding artist, Arun (Aamir Khan) - they have a one-night stand, and after an awkward, angry morning-after parting, she retains an attraction and curiosity about him. Meanwhile Arun, moving into a new apartment, discovers some video letters shot by a girl named Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), intended for Yasmin's brother but evidently never sent. Arun becomes engrossed in Yasmin's story, raptly studying the letters, taking inspiration for his new set of paintings, and eager to discover what happened to her.
One of the themes of Dhobi ghat is that the city exists in multiple layers, both physical (shore, gutter, house, high-rise) and class (rat-killer/dhobi, servant, wealthy educated classes). The movie happens in the spaces where these strata meet and slide against each other. Only the American-born character, Shai, willfully and self-consciously disregards this stratification, nudging herself into Munna's spaces. Apart from Shai, the only customer who invites Munna into her home is a dour woman who, it is implied, wants him for sex, and dismisses him as a dhobi when she realizes he will no longer provide that. For upper-class Mumbai-walas, Munna is a service provider, not a person. Shai uses him as well, in her own way, but she also genuinely cares for him, especially by the film's end. Yet their friendship, like nearly everything else in the film's Mumbai, is transient.
Indeed, the loveliest moments in Dhobi ghat are its many symbols of the transitory nature of city life - characters move house and leave scant artifacts behind; names are scratched in sand and washed away by the waves; construction sites stand for the relentless pace of change. Even the videos, paintings, and photographs that drive the film's stories can only imperfectly capture moments; the records may remain, but like Arun's elderly neighbor they are mute and leave questions unanswered.
The weak link in the script is Arun; the brooding, temperamental, loner artist is a cliche and just a flatter character than the others. His obsession with Yasmin's letters is meant to add depth, but it doesn't tell us much about Arun, it's not personal enough to him - who would not be bewitched by such a vibrant young woman, by the mystery of her unsent letters and her unknown fate? Arun only takes on dimension at the very end of the film, as he deduces the logical conclusion of Yasmin's story and wordlessly struggles with the possibility that the art she inspired him to make is an exploitation of her suffering.
The performances in Dhobi ghat range from adequate (Aamir Khan, Monica Dogra) to exquisite (Prateik Babbar and Kriti Malhotra); the latter do as much with their faces as their dialogue and are as engaging and believable as the script allows. Kriti Malhotra renders especially well the slow choking of Yasmin's spirit, as her bright, vivacious smile early in the film fades to a haggard exhaustion by its end. At any rate, criticizing minor weaknesses in characterization or performance feels like nitpicking a film that is as much impressionist painting as tightly-woven text. On balance, Dhobi ghat is delicate, touching, visually rich, a pastiche of engaging stories very well told.