REVIEW: Characters Can't Quite Connect Amid the City-Symphony Elegance of Mumbai Diaries

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Set amid the stark dualities of the new Bombay, Mumbai Diaries follows four characters whose lives suggest the various ways one can experience what writer Suketu Mehta dubbed the "maximum city," and the social and economic determinism that closes each of those experiences off from the others. The film, writer and director Kiran Rao's feature debut, is marked by an ambition as grand as it is vulnerable to classist cliché. Rao's ultimate achievements -- including a balanced, doleful tone and moments of city symphony elegance -- are undercut by the arrangement of her characters into narrative castes that cross paths but can't quite connect.

Breezy Shai (Monica Dogra) meets Arun (Aamir Khan), a furrowed painter with tea green eyes, at his latest gallery opening. Shai is visiting from the United States -- her flat, clipped accent would suggest she has spent the bulk of her life there -- on an extended "sabbatical" from her job at a bank. Her Mumbai-based parents made their fortune in construction, and from the looks of it, their hobbyist photographer daughter couldn't have picked a better place to play the dilettante: Cars idle in wait wherever she goes and servants tend to her every hankering for chai. Like seems to have attracted privileged like when Shai and Arun tumble into bed the night they meet, but the next morning Arun stops just short of drop-kicking her out the door. Naturally, Shai is hooked.

Both Shai and Arun are clients of Munna (Prateik Babbar), a dhobi (launderer) who left his family in the provinces, he says, to "fill my belly." Second on the list was becoming a movie star. Young, handsome, and built, Munna develops a crush on Shai after she dresses him down over a ruined shirt. In the wake of her guilt over the incident, a deal is struck: Shai will take Munna's cheesy head shots if she can also photograph him at work for her own, even more dubious portfolio -- ennobling snaps of Mumbai's poor.

Which is the real Munna -- the romantic slumdog Shai insists upon or his self-image as a Bollywood heartthrob? No one perspective emerges as definitive or even particularly prominent, a choice that in this case ensures that none of the characters fully inhabits either Rao's themes or their own emotional arc. Shai's obsession with Arun, for example -- she begins following and secretly photographing him -- feels unwarranted within the story and unproductive without it. How does it mesh with her impulse to engage with Mumbai as an ethnographer? What kind of woman spends a joyful day with the besotted Munna and then laughs privately with her father about needing a vaccination shot? Shai does the most damage by computing the least; most of her scenes end with an opportunity for further illumination being lightly passed by.

Like Munna, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) came to the city looking for a better life, and her story is presented as a found document of that search: She videotaped her first months in Mumbai in lieu of writing home; Arun discovers the abandoned tapes in a closet of his new apartment. The blocked, brooding painter (and recent divorcé) becomes engrossed in the footage of Yasmin's cheerfully narrated trips around the city and to-camera confessionals recorded at home. Both Arun and Shai draw inspiration from their provincial muses, and in Munna's case being the object of that kind of disinterested interest becomes a source of pain and evasion that Rao boils down to simple pride: Who wants their crush to know they moonlight as a rat killer? Other potential responses to Shai's limited attentions -- resentment, rage, frustration, ambivalence -- entail an emotional complexity that is not available to these characters.

A pair of big-ticket events signal a climax but serve mainly to highlight the detachment that undermines much of Mumbai Diaries. Early on, Yasmin keeps trying to write her name in the sand during a trip to the beach, and the tide keeps smoothing it before she can finish. Though she's laughing, she notes the impermanence that is beginning to define her life in Mumbai. The moment stands out first for its evocative notes of humor and human loneliness, and then for the message of longing it seems to extend to the other characters. I wish there were more like it -- together they might have sunk organic, interwoven roots into Rao's well-tilled ideas, and kept this film from sliding so easily from memory.

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