See the picture there? That is the outdoor laundry in Mumbai, India, called Dhobi Ghat. The movie Dhobi Ghat (or Mumbai Diaries) tells a story of one of the dhobi (laundrymen) who work at the Dhobi Ghat and two of his clients: an artist and a young Indian woman, who is a financial consultant in New York City and on sabbatical in Mumbai, where her parents live, to explore how ordinary Indians make their living. This includes learning about the life of her dhobi (laundryman) who beats her clothes against the cement, hangs them to dry, and then irons them with a charcoal-heated iron.
India, 1988. When I visited friends in New Delhi, many of our clothes were handwashed in the home. Then we took them for ironing to the neighborhood ironing man (shown above), who ironed your clothes that day for 1 paise (penny) apiece. The iron was heated with charcoal. The actual dhobi came to the house once a week to collect sheets and other larger items. The Delhi dhobi beat these items against the rocks by the Yamuna River that runs through Delhi, returning them in a neat folded pile.
The dhobi is a young man, who came to Mumbai from the poverty-stricken northeastern state of Bihar to alleviate his hunger. He moonlights as a rat killer at night (beating rats to death with a stick) and resides in a box along the railroad tracks. He does exercises to build his physique and feed his dreams of being in the movies.
The dhobi serves the artist, a shy painter who finds in the clothes cabinet of his new apartment the video letters of the young wife who formerly lived there to her brother in the rural area from whence she came to live with her new husband. Her letters had apparently never been delivered. The artist becomes immersed in her video-letters and in her, and embarks on a new project to paint this lovely woman's portrait. With the artist, we are privileged to view Mumbai from the lens of this young woman's video camera.
But the painter and the New York financial consultant have also met at an opening of the painter's works at a Mumbai art gallery and spent a night together--with the painter backing off next morning and then wishing he had not been quite so dismissive of the experience.
The story of these four intertwined lives takes place against the backdrop of Mumbai, the fourth largest city in the world, one of the richest in Asia, with a metropolitan area population of 20.5 million people. The painter, played by Aamir Khan, declares at his opening that all of his works are an ode to Mumbai. Throughout the film we are treated to the noisy heartbeat of Mumbai's streets and get glimpses of the homes of its impoverished, middle class, and wealthy.
Dhobi Ghat called to mind the novel Howard's End by the British novelist E. M. Forster, who spent the early years of the 1920s in India as the private secretary to Tukoji Rao Holkar, Maharaja of Indore, an experience from which he wrote his famous Passage to India. But his Howard's End is the touching point for Dhobi Ghat, because the book is a paean to the effort of engagement with all, across societal stratifications and expectations. Dhobi Ghat, produced by Mr. Khan and written and directed by his wife, Kiran Rao, is an exploration of connection--connecting with "the other"--an experience that can only enrich, as we mere viewers like the artist are enriched by this lovely snapshot of life in India. Dhobi Ghat is available through Netflix.
Hanging out the clothes at the Dhobi Ghat.