While walking through crowded roads, bazaars, or fairgrounds, I have often thought any stranger around me could have been one of my best friends. Only a few amongst the multitude actually become our acquaintances, and fewer still share their lives with us. Among those who don’t, there are surely many wonderful souls we would love to meet. On the other hand, the person we cannot think of living without could have been a perfect stranger to us. Call it Fate or chance, our relationships are shaped by an invisible hand over which we have little control. How wonderful it would be if it were otherwise!
Imagine the story of a young village girl in the film Dhobi Ghat, who has just got married to someone in Mumbai. She meets the city, its crowds, incessant rains, and the sea with wide eyes brimming with happiness as she looks forward to her new life with a man who has all the trappings of “success”, like a nice flat and a video camera. Before she has time to fall in love with her man, she falls in love with the city, and her people. She feels sorry for her domestic help when the latter’s shanty gets flooded, quite unaware of the disaster that is in store for her. What begins as loneliness with her husband being away on work turns out to be an abyss after she discovers that he has just been using her. The happy smile in her eyes turns into painful sadness. She has access to the phone, but doesn’t inform her parents about her predicament. We don’t know why, but can guess.
It doesn’t matter whether the girl is Yasmin or Tabassum or Geeta, there is nothing new about her story. What is new is that – quite by chance – Yasmin shares her story with a perfect stranger, Arun, to the very end. Arun, a successful painter and a divorcee, has his own lonely furrows to trudge. He is deeply disturbed by Yasmin’s story, but is in no position to help her.
Another young girl Shai is new to Mumbai. She too discovers the city, but her journey couldn’t have been more different than Yasmin’s. If Yasmin’s helplessness takes us back to the past, Shai, an investment banker based in New York, is an alien visiting us from the future – confident, and free from the shackles that held back our women for centuries. Don’t both the past and the future live in the present?
Having come to Mumbai on a sabbatical, Shai spends her time taking pictures of the different moods and manners of the city. The photographer and the painter, both of whom have the city at the heart of their work, discover a kindred soul in each other. As the film begins, Shai has a fling with Arun, but their relationship remains undefined and inchoate till the end.
Also, Shai, brought up in an environment where a manual worker is not automatically considered socially inferior to a painter or a banker, makes friends with a dhobi, Munna. For Munna, the principal difference between his village in Darbhanga and Mumbai is that in the city, he doesn’t feel hungry all the time. He is a dhobi by day, a municipal “rat killer” by night, and an aspiring film star at heart. Munna’s second occupation is unknown to Shai till the end, and so is the fact that at his station in life, it would not be unnatural for him to be friendly with drug peddlers, just as for Shai, it wouldn’t be unnatural to have junkies as buddies.
Munna is drawn towards Shai, but has the sense to realise the hopelessness of such a relationship. The unlikely triangle of Shai, Arun, and Munna has all the usual spices of sexuality, joy, and jealousy. And as the story unfolds, the city looms large in the background. In one scene, a few days after the Ganesha festival, Arun, trying to retrace Yasmin’s journey, is on the seashore. Like her, he too is alone. As he looks out, a tiny plastic Ganesha drifts towards him. Shorn of the pageantry, the god of wealth and success seems pitiably lonesome when he returns to Arun as the symbol of the solitude that is at the heart of city life.
Thankfully, when the film ends, all the stories don't. There is a hint of Munna giving up his dreams about Shai, but we don't know where she and Arun end up. Perhaps it is not necessary. It is the journeys that are important, not the destinations ... not only in literature and films, but in life in general.
That Aamir Khan would bring out the shades of Arun’s character with all the subtlety at his command is no wonder. It is the other three main actors whose brilliance amazes us. Among the audience, those who were old enough to see films in the 1970s and 80s are likely to form an emotional bond with Prateik as Munna, because he is the son of Smita Patil, one of our most talented actors ever, who died at the age of thirty in 1986.
The film has a fifth principal character, the city of Mumbai. Grandeur and filth, selfishness and warmth, liberality and Shiv Sena, New York and Darbhanga, Mumbai has them all. It has a character like perhaps no other city in this country has. Apart from presenting a fine film, debutant director Kiran Rao would make many of us fall in love with the city all over again. Not a mean achievement, one feels.