Some scenes stay with you, like the satisfaction of a fulfilled promise. I will share couple of scenes from Dhobi Ghat that made me sit up and take notice, and were the pivotal factors behind me loving the movie. They run as follows:
Munna comes to Shai’s house to return her cloth he inadvertently tampered. He has rectified his mistake and salvaged himself. She calls him inside. To understand the essence of the scene completely, let’s trace the backgroud of both the characters. Shai is an Investment Banker in USA who has come to India on a sabbatical. She is a bit romantic (aren’t all hobbyists are?), is easily charmed by life, and faces any new experience with alacrity. Then, there is Munna. He is a Dhobi (washer-man). Munna does not even understand what sabbatical means, nor would he probably ever understand. He would also probably never understand the concept of ‘a new perspective’, because when the most rudimentary desires begs for attention, you are in a bubble battling that and cannot afford to look beyond it. Kiran Rao brings these two representatives of their respective world together — in one roof, bonds them over a cup of coffee and weaves a beautiful scene.
The conversation begins by Shai asking Munna, So you like Doors? (Munna is wearing a Doors t-shirt). For Shai, even simple attire is a mode of expression, some sort of silent declaration to the world regarding one’s tastes. But, does that mean anything to Munna? For him clothes hold a basic meaning — to cover. For all we know, he might have picked it up just because it looked colorful or
She asks him, So, you are from Mumbai? He replies in negative. He came to Bombay in want of food and has since stayed here. Does he not miss his family, she ponders. Was he not happy with his family there? Munna has nebulous concept of happiness. Being famished as a child, he simplistically equated happiness with the amount of food he used to get. And he used to get way too less. It is a quite sagacious comment on one’s happiness with respect to one’s earning potential. Many a times, the more people earn, the more avenues they seek to be unhappy. Shai’s India’s trip is a quest for checking one of those boxes. So, here are the representative of two different worlds, where every stroke — be it natural or manmade (will come to it in the next scene) stands for something strikingly different.
The conversation trudges along and Munna’s hovering eyes notices the camera kept on the table. Are you a photographer? He asks. And then he gazes at the couple of camera lenses on the table. It is a poignant juxtaposition of two different worlds. Munna whose life had been hostage to hunger pangs, for whom creative satisfaction is an alien concept. How do you explain sabbatical to someone whose aim in life (and even that’s not as easily achieved) has been to secure two meals for himself throughout the day? That is the spirit of any metropolis teeming with millions, if you take your camera and run amok with it, and freeze various moments of life captured, this is what you will get. Dreams criss crossing with each other, each on a different level and satiated by a different yardstick. This is the most emphatic achievement of the movie. The soul of Dhobi Ghat lies in these poignant moments stitched together. Kiran Rao doesn’t judge the protagonists here, neither does her camera (no excruciatingly close up shots trying to milk the pathos), she just puts things as they are. She observes like an innocent, inquisitive kid, simply trying to understand how and why certain things are, the way they are.
Mumbai rains. They have been delineated so many times in movies that over the time they have both become a cinematic device and cliche. But, here Mumbai rains serve a different purpose. In this scene, Arun uses Mumbai’s rain as an aide to smooth his evening (He uses rain drops to soften his whiskey), the same rain in some other part of the city is wreaking havoc on Munna’s house. Even Mumbai rains acquire a different meaning for disparate Mumbai denizens. Human beings be damned, even the rain Gods are partisan.
In this particular scene, Agnes (Shai’s housekeeper) wonders why Shai frequents out with Munna. She is at loss to explain what she wants to convey clearly. I mean, he is dhobi, can’t you freaking see? You could almost see Agnes saying this aloud. For her that should be reason enough. In Scene #1, she brings Coffee for Munna in a glass (She serves Coffee to Shai in a Coffee mug). So what if Shai can’t see the difference?
Why does Munna not kiss Shai? Arun and Shai had a moment together, and their night culminated into a predictable finale. What does stop Munna from seizing the moment here? Is it the apprehension of facing an awkward moment if Shai rebuffs him? Or, is it something different? This scene would have had a different flavor to it if Munna and Shai were sharing the same societal pedestal. But, they are not. We as an audience cannot see them having a future together. How can Munna?
I felt uncomfortable for a moment in the aforementioned first scene where Munna was standing in Shai’s living room. Would she offer him a seat? Would he sit on the ground? Would he just stand? There has to be some differentiang factor between a Banker and Washer-man? No? She offers him a seat. He sits. The conflict is resolved readily and easily. But, then during one of Shai’s night outs, she is sitting in the front seat of her friend’s car and she spots Munna standing some distance away with his street peddler friend. Would Shai invite him to hang out with her friends? Would Shai welcome him in the car? (As she did when they were hanging out together) Shai does not even extend a hello to him. Why? Who is she more ashamed of at this instant? Of herself? Of Munna? Of her and Munna’s friendship? Or, the equation she shares with her friends? (“He is just a Dhobi ya!”). What does Shai do ultimately? She tilts her head and sinks into her seat, oblivious of the world that exists on the other side of the car.
The car zips into that part of the city where the party continues till morning. Munna dissolves into a different night of the same city. He has more pressing concerns to address at the moment. He has to take care of some rats.