Dhobi Ghat is an acquired taste. Either the film will sink into your skin like a slow ache or it will be bewildering and downright boring.
Kiran Rao?s first film is an atmospheric mood piece. There is no overt plot ? four lives randomly connect in Mumbai. There are fleeting moments of happiness and pain and the eventual realisation that the journey never ends. The struggle to survive and to connect is eternal.
The characters are Shai, played by Monica Dogra, an NRI investment banker who is back in Mumbai for, she says, a change of pace. Arun, played by Aamir Khan, an angst-ridden artist who has a one-night stand with Shai but has little affection or time for her the next morning.
Munna, played by Prateik, a dhobi with dreams of becoming an actor. And Yasmin, a young married Muslim girl, played by Kriti Malhotra, who makes video diaries that Arun discovers.
These people intersect in the disparate spaces of the city ? posh art galleries and narrow gullies in slums; the dhobi ghat and high-rises.
Munna and Shai make a connection but can something too fraught and tenuous to even be called a friendship, transcend class difference?
The fifth character in the film is Mumbai, a teeming city of migrants that remains unknowable, alienating, harshly beautiful and brutally indifferent.
Kiran Rao and cinematographer Tushar Kanti Ray construct a rich and intimate portrait of the city. In places, the locations almost overshadow the characters ? there is a terrific shot of Arun walking down the bustling Mohammed Ali Road during Ramzan.
In another scene, Munna covers his shanty from the torrential rain as local trains whiz by.
Rao also observes human behavior keenly ? so when Shai first asks Munna to sit down in her up-market apartment, he hesitantly feels the sofa before placing himself down. And when Shai?s disapproving maid serves them tea, she brings one nice cup and one glass that befits Munna?s status.
Prateik is achingly lovely as Munna but the star of the film is the luminous Kriti Malhotra who revealingly loses the hope and shine in her eyes.
This saga of love and longing is punctuated by a haunting background score created by Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla.
What doesn?t work as well is the pacing. Rao?s build-up of characters is painfully slow with the first 30 minutes or so being the most problematic.
Some of the early scenes are clumsy and the disjointed narrative just isn?t engaging enough. I was also confused by the suggestion that Munna is having a relationship with an older woman customer ? so does the dhobi routinely offer more than just clean clothes?
Intriguingly, Aamir Khan, otherwise such a fine actor, strikes a false note.
With constantly furrowed brows, he seems to be performing at a different pitch from everyone else. You can almost feel the weight of being in an art house film on his shoulders - the early scenes with him and Monica are particularly awkward.
Still, if you are willing to have patience, Dhobi Ghat comes together nicely. It has a poetry and melancholy that stays with you. I recommend that you give it a shot.