When Bollywood A-lister Aamir Khan casually utters ‘fuck’ in English early in this Hindi film, you know this is not your typical ‘masala’ movie. First-time female director Kiran Rao’s (wife of Khan) debut is a delightful delve into the daily lives of ordinary Bombayites. We encounter Arun (Khan), an artist who is jaded with life and seeking inspiration. This divorced loner finds it in the abandoned video diaries he discovers in his new flat: who is the mysterious ‘Yasmin’ (Kriti Malhotra) in the tapes and where is she?
Meanwhile, Shai (Monica Dogra), an American NRI (‘Non Resident Indian’) is taking a gap year from her corporate banking job. She dabbles in photography by taking snapshots of life in India’s ‘maximum city’. Then there's Munna (Prateik), a lowly ‘dhobi’ (laundry man), who softens his ‘slumdog’ existence by dreaming of becoming the next Bollywood superstar. He is the link between Arun and Shai. Gradually, an unlikely but believable bond develops between them.
Quirky camera-work and Gustavo Santaolalla’s (‘Brokeback Mountain’) understated score blend seamlessly with the sounds of the Mumbai streets giving us a real flavour of Mumbai life. We are sucked into the daily trials and tribulations of these characters, and the impossibility of a fruitful romantic relationship across the class divide between Shai and Munna is plausibly examined.
Rao sensibly avoids any dramatic Bollywood-style confrontations; she lets events speak for themselves. Shai’s middle-class friends find her ‘dhobi-boy’ alliance laughable whilst Munna himself knows and is constantly reminded that boundaries must and cannot be crossed. Rao’s Renoir-type realism, so rare in mainstream Indian cinema, results in an accurate, funny and at times deeply moving portrait of desolate souls in a city and country which may be ‘shining’ but only for a select few. The Ozu-influenced climax, filmed in heavy chaotic Mumbai traffic, is one of the most bittersweet endings I have seen on film in years.