The debut of writer/director Kiran Rao (wife of producer and star Aamir Kahn), Mumbai Diaries tells the stories of 14 million Mumbai denizens through the intersecting lives of four. Dhobi Ghat (which actually means "washer man") is one of a series of "New Bollywood" films that eschew the traditional Bollywood tropes (lavish production numbers and high gloss aesthetics) for a more western style of storytelling and contemporary character constructions. On occasion these films break through to western audiences, but typically not. Given the particular resonance the name Mumbai has with global audiences (2008 brought Mumbai to world attention through a terrorist attack and the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire ), the success of Mumbai Diaries pivots largely on whether its title will draw or repulse moviegoers. If marketing efforts are targeted and clear, Dhobi Ghat may rise to its Slumdog pretensions at the box office. Word of mouth and reviews will be strong.
Arun (Aamir Khan) is an introverted artist reluctant to attend the opening of his latest show; Shai (Monica Dogra) is a young woman and expatriate who has been away from Mumbai for many years studying and working in America; Munna (Prateik) is the titular dhobi of the film's Indian title, an immigrant from the countryside who dreams of becoming an actor. The fourth character is Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a newly wed who only appears in a series of video letters intended for the sisters she left when she entered into an arranged marriage. Arun flees his responsibilities and takes residence in an old apartment building. It's there he finds Yasmin's tapes hidden, a detail that's telling both literally and metaphorically. After meeting Shai at his opening and having an amorous evening with her that ends badly the next morning, Arun retreats into his shell of secrets and gives in to his curiosity about the tapes. The video letters are lyrical, Yasmin is beautiful, Arun is taken and inspired. Meanwhile, Shai meets Munna, Arun's washer boy.
The happenstance of these overlapping acquaintances in a city of fourteen million people might stretch credulity, but myriad western films are built from flimsier stuff and audiences don't bat an eye. Though clumsily established, these characters and their stations are revealed, and we see where they can and cannot go, whom they should and should not know. Can the Americanized Shai ever truly understand the "givens" of those stations of existence? Can Arun draw inspiration from the intimate letters of a young woman trapped in ancient traditions that have never affected him? Can a washer boy earn the love of a modern Indian woman whose class transcends even her caste in setting her apart from the likes of him?
This is a wholly accessible story that most filmgoers will find pithy and generally well done. Debuting director and screenwriter Kiran Rao is a debuting filmmaker indeed, her missteps are few but none are critical. The players, including Rao's husband and executive producer Aamir Khan, are each challenged by at least one handicap. For Khan, Mumbai Diaries is his first primarily English-speaking role. Known for his comedies, the 40 year old Indian superstar handles the English well, but ironically Khan's dramatic acting presentation tends toward the mannered Bollywood style the film portends to subvert. Still, when Aamir Khan is good he's as good as any moviestar in the world and here he's mostly very good. Prateik (Munna) is the son of former Bollywood stars (Smita Patil and Raj Babbar) whose famous parents cast long shadows in the world of Indian cinema. His good looks belie a soulful demeanor and a modern understanding of performance. This young man can act—and almost speak English. If he never learns to actually speak English it will be the Western world's loss. Monica Dogra (Shai) makes her feature film debut here, as does Kriti Malhotra (Yasmin); the former starts stiffly but works her way into a convincing performance; the later appears only in snippets of video, yet is always captivating in what must have been the most difficult performance in the film. She had nothing to play to except a video camera, and her work is exceptional.
In Mumbai Diaries fans of Indian cinema will find a film that sets aside the tropes of Bollywood and a whole series of stereotypes about a city known for a single tragedy, a nation known for despair and a people known for the social castes that divide them. These notions are replaced by notions of a city and a people who are wholly unique, yet ultimately no different than any city, animated by its history, living in the day.
Distributor: UTV Communications
Cast: Aamir Khan, Prateik, Monica Dogra and Kriti Malhotra
Director/Screenwriter: Kiran Rao
Producers: Aamir Khan
Genre: Drama/Romance; Hindi- and English-languages, subtitled
Running time: 100 min
Release date: January 21 ltd