Sunday Review: Dhobi Ghat, No One Killed Jessica

by Siôn Simon

Relatively few of the Indian films on release in the UK these days are what one traditionally understands by “Bollywood”.

No One Killed Jessica, for instance – which is packing them in at the moment – is a melodramatic political thriller with a message. The characters do not suddenly break into song or dance. The original soundtrack by Amit Trivedi is no more obtrusive than that of any Hollywood film. (Though the terrible soft rock crescendo of the last half hour would probably have been at least curbed in California).

The two main characters are strong single women. (To be fair, this is a Bollywood first, but it’s not exactly common in any other country’s films either). So assertive and modern are the lead pair that one of them says fuck to her boss a lot, likes casual sex and does yoga upside down in her office, while the other is the de facto head of her family. Traditional Bollywood stereotypes are firmly behind us.

Based on unspecified real events, it is a miscarriage of justice tale. The two villains are the contemptuously arrogant political elite and the decadently supine middle class.

The heroes are the brave sister of the murdered woman, a campaigning TV journalist, the media as a whole, and people power.

Some of the old ways remain. No One Killed Jessica is so open-hearted as to be naïve. It is at least half an hour too long. The snatches of English dialogue seem absurd. The workplace scenes and relationships, as always, are stylised.

Indeed, the most important vestige of such films’ “old Bollywood” antecedents is that they remain slightly stylised. They are less naturalistic, less realistic, than Western films. But that’s fine. Aeschylus is stylised.

Not that No One Killed Jessica is a masterpiece. All the President’s Men it is not. By no means. But it’s a lot more that than it is Sholay. And it is as good as any Western drama-thriller that was on general release in England last weekend.

Dhobi Ghat is quite different. It is being called an “independent”, or sometimes an “art house”, film. Yet it has had the same release as “commercial” Bollywood films, because one of its two male leads, Aamir Khan, is a superstar of Hindi cinema. So it is an art house film with a commercial release.

To add another layer of ambiguity to which, it was made by Khan’s own production company, whose other outputs have included massive commercial successes, such as its inaugural project, Lagaan. And whose next, Delhi Belly, scheduled for this summer, is an unashamedly commercial, star-laden ensemble comedy.

So it’s not clear quite how “indie” Dhobi Ghat is. But one sense in which it may be “art house” is that at times it is rather slow. A certain amount of contemplation is depicted. Some scenes, indeed, are given over to watching paint dry (Khan’s character is an artist).

Beyond dispute is that it is an impressive directorial debut for Khan’s wife, Kiran Rao. Set in a seamier side of Mumbai, it is feelingly shot in soft, impressionistic tones which nevertheless avoid romanticism.

The dhobi ghat of the title is the open air place where washermen (dhobi) do their work by ancient means on behalf of the rich. Lauded newcomer, Prateik, plays a dhobi whose clients include Aamir Khan’s painter and Monica Dogra’s roots-returned American rich girl. The fourth character is an increasingly unhappy housewife who was the previous tenant of the painter’s new apartment.

It is an intelligent, elliptical work with interleaved relationships, plotlines and themes. All four main characters are credibly likeable, without the film being irritating or trite, upon which achievement partly rests its success.

More than merely not “Bollywood”, Dhobi Ghat is not even terribly Indian, though it is utterly Mumbai. One American critic wrote that it owes more to French auteur cinema than to Satyajit Ray, and that is true. It was Truffaut who walked out when Pather Panchali was first shown at Cannes; the nods and nudges in Mumbai Dreams (the dodgy English title) seem more towards Goddard.

Dhobi Ghat is not a masterpiece either. But it is a low-key triumph; an immensely promising first feature. If there is to be a second Indian new wave, Kiran Rao will be part of it. And it will be part of the mainstream. That is how times have changed.

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2 Responses to “Sunday Review: Dhobi Ghat, No One Killed Jessica”

  1. Dan Hodges says:

    …All the President’s Men IS a masterpiece…

  2. Arjun says:

    I stopped going to see Hindi films a few years ago because the soul has gone out of the industry. Take the songs for example, there are no traditonal indian music or instruments, just electric guitars and keyboards. when was the last time you heard a song that was entirely in hindi? why the need for the corniest sounding english lines?

    Films are slicker now but with they have lost their substance. My favourite film is Border, compare songs like sandese aate hain to some of the rubbish around now. it all sounds the same and it could be made anywhere in the world.

    I am not saying that all the old films were excellent (most of the films in the 90s were god awful and embarassing) or that all the current films are bad, but there is a loss of identity and a race tot he bottom in terms of commercialisation. The same with cricket. I cant bear to watch IPL, its a farce, an entertainment, a money making exercise. they dont play for national pride or professional pride in skill. they play for lambourginis.

    It is sad to see a nation quite literally sell its soul, and it started with films.

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