Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) and a photographer’s dilemma

April 25th, 2011

still from Dhobi Ghat, starring Prateik Babbar

Most Indian cities have an area called the dhobi ghat, a bank of a river or lake where laundry services send clothes to be cleaned. Just like these areas are often on the outskirts of the city, the film Dhobi Ghat (released in some English-speaking markets as Mumbai Diaries) is on the outskirts of Hindi film, not filled with song-and-dance fantasies or wild action, but some subdued drama and a personal view.

In the film, Prateik Babbar plays Munna, a young man who delivers clothes for the dhobi service. His first encounter with Shai (Monica Dogra) is a little hostile–she berates him for spreading the wine stain on a white shirt. Shai is an American of Indian descent, a banker and aspiring photographer on a year’s sabbatical in her parents’ homeland. In their next meeting, she seems a little apologetic, and invites him in for tea to make up for it. He tells her that he moved to Mumbai from Bihar in hopes of making more money, either through better-paying jobs or becoming a movie star. He has never been back to his home state, he says.

He notices her camera, and asks if she can take his picture, so that he can use it to audition as an actor. It becomes apparent that their goals for the pictures are quite different. He wants to show off his confidence, his Westernized jeans and tee-shirts, his rock-star/model glamour poses. She’s interested in the unguarded realness of his life, taking a few photos of him preparing for the shoot when he wasn’t looking. She agrees to take photos in a studio in exchange for permission to photograph him working on laundry at the dhobi ghat.

I recognized something of his puzzlement and embarrasment. A lot of the people I met in India wanted me to see the Westernized side of things, the side they thought of as impressive. Sometimes they were puzzled by my interest in the underside, or else just the everyday routines. They didn’t know why an American would find the dhobi ghat particularly interesting.

But that’s a risk you take when you try to cross a cultural divide. You have to risk saying, “Here is what I find interesting about your story,” realizing that the person living that story thinks of those aspects as entirely uninteresting. Maybe it’s a risk of objectifying or fetishizing the “simple life,” or a risk that you’ll find something that humiliates or exposes them. If you never take that risk, you don’t learn from them or see what their lives are really like. And maybe we all need to be told from time to time that our lives are interesting, even those parts of them we’d like to gloss over, ignore, or replace with a facade.

Here’s my dhobi ghat picture, taken up the steps from the Ganges in Rishikesh.
Dhobi-wallah's shop in Rishikesh

One Response to “Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) and a photographer’s dilemma”

  1. Ute Hartle says:

    you’ve got a great weblog right here! would you wish to make some invite posts on my blog?

RSS feed for comments on this post. And trackBack URL.

Leave a Reply