Everyone’s an artist in Mumbai Diaries, Kiran Rao’s Bombay-set network narrative—or at the very least aspires to be one. Part wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance, part portrait of the titular city, and part reflection on the class privilege of turning (mostly impoverished) life into art, Rao’s film is least clumsy and most interesting when dealing with the latter, even as it’s partially implicated in the same thorny dilemmas facing the director’s on-screen surrogates.
Following a one-night stand between Indian-American financial consultant (and amateur photographer) Shai (Monica Dogra) and toast-of-the-town painter Arun (Aamir Khan), the two go their separate ways, each increasingly occupied with a third character who shows them new aspects of the teeming metropolis—and fuels their art. When Shai, on extended sabbatical from New York, befriends her clothes washer (dhobi), a handsome young man who fancies himself an aspiring actor and instantly falls in love with the toothsome American, more than a few eyebrows are raised among the locals. That class is a more rigid matter in India than the United States is a point frequently made, most explicitly by Shai’s maid who upbraids her for her activity, dismissing the “dhobi boy” as “totally worthless.”
Still, despite the bluntness of the class critique, the relationship between Shai and Munna (Prateik) is appealingly modest, the possibility of romance ever present, but nicely sublimated as the character’s repression of desire delivers a more telling comment on the social barriers to love than any explicit listen-to-this dialogue. More problematic is Shai’s interest in Munna as artistic “material.” In exchange for shooting the aspiring actor’s portfolio, Munna agrees to let Shai photograph him at the various stages of his washing work, a project that expands to guiding the young woman around the less “glamorous” neighborhoods of Mumbai. While this agreement allows Rao to construct her own cine-portrait of the city, which she does via handsome but not overly prettified views of the metropolis’ vivid working-class quarters, she complicates the question of how to film poverty by incorporating Shai’s own arty snaps into her shots. Lensing perfectly framed black-and-white pics, Shai clearly aspires to a self-consciously “artistic” brand of photography, and by cutting directly from her more rough hewn framings to Shai’s images, Rao calls into question the propriety of mining exotic material for artistic glory.
Or does she simply indulge in the same impulse as Shai? Certainly her film seems more thoughtful about questions of class and aesthetics than does its female lead, but Rao’s not above the same mode of easy prettification. In one sequence that seems to define the film’s ambiguous attitude toward its central questions of representation, Rao films Munna on top of his shack roof, placing plastic over a hole in order to waterproof the structure in the middle of a nighttime rainstorm. The shot, whose ostensible content is the crippling effects of poverty, is filmed as a lovely overhead nocturnal view, the image of tiny Munna patching the hole set off against two trains zipping by in the distance, their windows lighted amidst the attendant downpour. But then, Rao follows up the scene by showing Shai discussing her adventures in slumming with her real estate magnate father. As the two laugh about what her poverty-phobic mother would say if she knew about Shai’s project, the juxtaposition with the previous scene becomes an eloquent testimony to the relative economic positions of Munna, Shai, and Rao herself as a starting point for their participation in the creation of art—whether as author or subject.
Slightly less problematic than Shai’s artistic interest in her dhobi is Arun’s relationship with his own “guide” to the city. Despite his residence in one of the poorer quarters of Mumbai, the painter is signaled as both financially successful and an outsider to the city (he’s lived abroad in Australia). So when he discovers a series of video letters shot by his apartment’s former resident on a low-grade camcorder, he becomes obsessed to the point of curtailing nearly all other activity until he makes his way through the tapes. Determined to document the city for her family back in her provincial hometown, the woman, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), takes her camera to Mumbai’s marketplaces, thoroughfares, and public trains, opening up the metropolis for the reclusive painter in the same way that Munna did for Shai. But if Arun, like Shai, is a self-conscious artist, than Yamin’s work is that of a primitive, her nauseous zooms and choppy handheld work a more turbulent version of Rao’s own rough-hewn aesthetic. As he makes his way through the tapes, and Yasmin’s sadness turns to genuine despair, Arun becomes fascinated by the woman’s face, eventually working her teary-eyed visage into his latest painting, a questionable decision that the film doesn’t quite question and which becomes especially dubious when we learn Yasmin’s ultimate fate. Still, even apart from the uncertain propriety of Arun’s project, the scenes with the painter suffer from a certain static quality, mirroring the character’s own hermetic orientation and diverting attention from the more vibrant question of Shai and Munna’s romantic and (especially) artistic relationship.
A deceptively simple tale of four Mumbai residents, Rao’s film is animated by its inquiry into the not always mutually beneficial symbiosis between artist and subject that complicates so much of human-centric art. That film is among the most human-centric of arts and that Rao doesn’t adequately interrogate her own relationship to her subjects means that Mumbai Diaries can’t quite match its own ambitions, but unlike popular Indian-set entertainments like Slumdog Millionaire, at least it knows enough to pose the right questions.