“My muse, my whore, my beloved”: that’s what Arun, a gloomy artist, calls Bombay in Kiran Rao’s “Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries).” Shooting on location in Super 16 and MiniDV, Ms. Rao gives the city an immediacy it doesn’t usually have in films. But she has more feel for mood than for storytelling.
Shai (Monica Dogra), an investment banker and photographer, befriends Munna (Prateik), her dhobi, or laundryman. She takes pictures of him working; he falls for her. Then there’s Arun (the Bollywood star Aamir Khan, who is also Mr. Kiran Rao). Moving to a new apartment, he becomes obsessed with the video diaries of a former tenant, the unhappy Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra). Mr. Khan broods beautifully, but Arun’s interest in Yasmin is all conceit, no action.
And Ms. Rao’s love-versus-class-barriers theme is left dangling. What does Shai want from Munna? He loves her, but what does she feel for him? Is he merely an entree into a city beyond the privileged one she inhabits, or is there something more? Ms. Dogra can’t help us crack these mysteries.
Ms. Rao does have an ace up her sleeve, though: Prateik, who in his first lead role gives a nuanced, career-making performance. His Munna, the film’s most realized character, is modest and ambitious (he wants to be an actor), naïve and knowing, and sometimes even a little noble. He’s as good an emblem as any for Ms. Rao’s muse, her beloved Bombay.
Written and directed by Kiran Rao; director of photography, Tushar Kanti Ray; edited by Nishant Radhakrishnan; music by Gustavo Santaolalla; production design by Manisha Khandelwal; costumes by Isha Ahluwalia and Darshan Jalan; produced by Aamir Khan and Ms. Rao; released by UTV. In Hindi and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. This film is not rated.