This weekend, at the cinema hall, the murmurs and deficiency of mental engagement in the audience proved that Indian cinema-goers have little patience for metaphorical movies. Entertainment, which sometimes stoops to the crass or is downright violent, is what the public wants. Dhobi Ghat, an intense and artistic movie, is not striking a chord with the regular audience as it lacks commercial extravaganza. However, the failure of Guzaarish also proves that even large scale commercial cinema can take a rap on the knuckles, if it touches upon serious social and personal issues.
One of the criticisms that Bhansali’s larger than life project, Guzaarish, received was an unfinished climax. This highlights another aspect of our audience – we don’t want our art to be meaningful, or have something left for thought or imagination. We like happy endings, and if not happy, then spoon-fed endings. While Guzaarish leaves you with the ethical dilemma of near and dear ones forced to take euthanasia into their hands, in the face of an insensitive legal mechanism, many people failed to realize the point. Is it also because of lack of awareness, is a question that one may ask.
Dhobi Ghat dishes out a close-knit conclusion of four distinct stories. Its disengaging spirit may then be credited to the use of metaphors and more importantly to the matter-of-fact depiction of reality (sans the melodrama). Dhobi Ghat is an intricately woven and craftily treated movie – in less than two hours, the script touches all the major ingredients of a complete Mumbai experience – dirty jobs, lonely housewives, lonely artists and lonelier NRIs, drugs, high society, the underworld, a fast-paced life, Bollywood aspirations, diaspora, street life, glimpses of festivals and even the concept of a private sector sabbatical. However, it fails to impress majority of the movie buffs, and that is where its failure as a commercial flick lies.
Critics have been gentler when passing their judgment and some quarters have even given “rave reviews.” Most reviews have spoken about cinematographic excellence, and skillful characterization (all have emphasized on the fifth character, Mumbai) but most have skipped reference to the strong metaphors, and the intelligent detailing. Here are some instances of allegory that have stayed with me – Arun catching raindrops in a glass of wine (a symbol of allowing a part of nature, or as critics would love to say, a part of Mumbai, to slowly seep into himself); and a parallel drawn with Munna catching the rain drops from the dripping roof of his shanty. Another beautiful image is sketched, when Arun scrubs clean Yasmin’s silver trinkets and adorns the little pieces; it is self-abandon at its best, a delicate portrayal of how Arun wants to reach out to Yasmin – the slow transformation of Yasmin into his muse. The flashback shot of Arun touching a toe-ring also has great energy and leaves much to the viewer’s imagination. And then there is this image of Yasmin walking into the sunlight at Elephanta caves; a clever depiction of the culmination of her story. Yasmin’s video tapes are, of course, loaded with the best of the moments of revelation, innocence, and façade, and make for exhaustive study.
Interestingly, there was one conspicuous representation of the class divide that was not missed by the “murmuring audience” – when Shai’s maid brings tea for Munna in a glass tumbler. Such images are not lost on us because they are a more vivid replica of our own psyche. I can also not forget where Munna hides his money – in a cassette player – for the one with few resources every tidbit of commodity is an asset. Munna is ashamed when Shai discovers his part-time occupation as a rat-killer but remains impervious to her reference to his involvement with a married woman. It shows the stigma attached to unclean jobs, but how immoral indulgences are just another way of life. In fact, this is quite a paradox because at a certain point in the movie, Munna tells his friend that at least his occupation as a rat-killer brings in honest money. Such is the life of ordinary man – always in a fix to select between right and wrong, to find equilibrium between matters of social class and matters of the heart.
Shai is another strong character, who is also a slave to her emotions. She categorically tells her friend that though she knows what happened with Arun was just a one-night stand she has this feeling of non-fulfillment. Shai represents the educated, independent woman, who subconsciously cradles basic instincts to belong and to be cherished, as the ultimate measure of being complete as a woman. There is another tangent to Shai’s character; she probably depicts the average American (or global) tourist, who is more interested in the lesser known social and economic classes, and customs of India, than the average Indian himself.
Dhobi Ghat is a rich movie – while watching it, I felt that this would have made such an engaging book to read. Pages and pages could be filled with the metaphors and the images; the potential is endless, the audience selective, and the impact irrevocable. And for the rest of the gentry, there is always the next reality show on TV, or raunchy commercial movie at the cinema halls.