It's hard to say if films like Dhobi Ghat belong to a refreshing genre. Despite being new-age cinema, and endowed with the finest of technology and art, it sometimes turns out as far-removed from public emotion as the snooty, wine-sipping, air-kissing bunch of people that crowd the painting exhibition at the start of the film. And as abstract as the paintings themselves.
Sounding profound and exotic while communicating a complex web of ideas is not what we're complaining about - it is when abstractness starts bordering on vagueness that things begin to slacken. The film gracefully says what it has to say, but while you're fascinated by the new-age, fresh, uncluttered story-telling that it offers, there's isn't a whole lot of content to rave about.
If the promos weren't as slick as they were, and if Aamir Khan weren't as closely associated with the flick - even being a prominent member of its cast - as he is, it's tough to see viewers thronging theatres for it.
Then, there's the issue of the story's backdrop. The plot requires that the visuals be a commentary on Mumbai's underbelly versus its cream. Slum life, the real Dhobi Ghat, shabby tenements, dirty night-jobs and murky subways thus get juxtaposed with images and dialogues describing the ways of the rich.
It's classy work, but at the end of the day, this is what makes it one of those movies that get sent to international film festivals for speaking about "the real India". Much like the film's super-affluent Shai (Monica Dogra), whose fixation with photographing Mumbai's filth seems condescending and snobbish despite her best intentions.
Dhobi Ghat's style reminds you of the similarly-conceptualized LSD. LSD was a much racier flick, had a conclusive ending, and didn't feel like twice its runtime. Dhobi Ghat isn't any of all that. Then again, Dhobi Ghat doesn't try to thrill, titillate or shock; it is rather like a mellow, low-pitched and laid-back reading of a set of diaries.
Characters are a brooding artist Arun (Aamir Khan), a dhobi Munna (Prateik Babbar) who harbours dreams of becoming an actor, and a high-flying wealthy investment banker Shai who's fascinated by Mumbai and romances it with her camera. Plus, a sweet-sounding young homely Muslim woman (Kriti Malhotra) seen and heard on videotape.
Paths cross, emotions get tangled, and questions are posed. Kiran Rao is good at putting together a rather mature collage of emotions, and keeps to a high degree of subtlety. She's also gentle with her characters, each of who is pleasant, and may as well be the person next door.
Rao is lucky - and so are we - to have Aamir Khan and Prateik Babbar so live their roles that you barely notice there's no real story out there. In particular, Prateik is a delight to watch. We don't know if it's remarkable acting on his part, or if it is just he being himself, but he is perfect for those scenes where he needs to shyly smile whenever Shia hangs out with him.
The women - both Monica Dogra and Kriti Malhotra - seem thoroughly good at what they're meant to do.
And then, of course, there's Aamir Khan, not saying a lot, but lending a whole lot of body to a film that otherwise tends to slip into gimmicky-arty mode.
If completely vague endings put you off, this movie's not for you. On the other hand, watch it if you're already feeling bad for not having watched Aamir Khan for over a year.