The 2001 film Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) is kind of a love letter to the people and places of Mumbai. Writer/director Kiran Rao partnered with her producer/actor husband Aamir Khan to present a story that encourages you to explore what this city of 12 million has to offer.
The title of the film refers to one of the major tourist attractions of the city - the largest open-air laundromat in the world.
A "dhobi" is a laundryman who collects dirty linens from hospitals, hotels, and homes and returns them washed and neatly pressed from open-air laundromats, or "ghats". Founded in 1890, the Mumbai Dhobi Ghat was created to service the city's large English and Parsi population. (Check out this postcard of Dhobi Ghat circa 1908).
Kiran Rao chose this location as an integral part of her story to show a different side of Mumbai than what you typically see in Bollywood films. In an Asia Pacific Arts interview, she explained:
I found that films about Mumbai tend to paint the city in one particular way. It feels like you only see one part of the city. Someone who doesn't know the city will probably think that's what Mumbai is all about -- it's either about gangsters and the underworld or young couples falling in love. But I really wanted to portray the city in a more complex way, where you feel like you can get under all the layers. That was the starting point for me as a writer -- trying to get the city to be as complex and interesting a character as the other four [characters]. Each of the characters was written to reflect different things about the city.
Mumbai's Dhobi Ghat (a.k.a. Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat) has around 10,000 washermen who use 731 individual, open-air concrete wash pens, each fitted with its own flogging stone. Clothes are soaked in sudsy water, then the dhobis thrash the garment repeatedly on the stone - relentlessly pounding the dirt from the clothing. Some workers spend most of their day knee-deep in stagnant stone pools of murky water. The garments are then boiled, scrubbed, hung out to dry, ironed, neatly folded, then returned to the customer. Because the clothes are marked from the outset with a code (usually on the inside of the garment), the clean clothes are returned to the proper owner.
Many families of the washermen live in the Dhobi Ghat and, in many cases, the laundry work has been handed down from generation to generation.
Hundreds of thousands of clothes are washed here and hung to dry every day. In March 2011, Dhobi Ghat entered the Guiness Book of World Records for "most number of people (496) simultaneously hand-washing clothes at a single location."
According to CNN iReporter Maya Sorabjee:
The Mahalaxmi dhobis are friendly and do not find shutterbugs intrusive as they continue to clean clothes by slapping them against flogging stones, propelling water and soap suds into the air with rhythmic constancy.
Besides the old-fashioned method of washing, the Ghat is also equipped with automatic laundry machinery which remains on the sidelines because the dhobis in their wash pens are the real stars of the show.
They scrub, slap, soak, dry, drape and deliver every article of clothing in their vicinity with remarkable competence and calm and get them back to their owners by evening.
The Mumbai Municipal Corporation officially owns the Dhobi Ghat land - which spans 28,000 square metres in the heart of the city, where real estate rates are at least Rs. 40,000 a square foot - and charges the dhobis for rent and maintenance. This has been an uneasy relationship, at best. According to the Dhobi Kalyan and Audyogik Vikas Co-op Society:
The BMC (Bombay Municipal Corporation) still authoritatively owns this dhobighat and extracts money from poor dhobis in the name of stone rent and maintenance charges. In the name of maintenance, the corporation hardly provides any utilities to the washerman community. The atrocities of BMC officers is so harsh that delayed payment by a washerman who has been holding the stone for more than five decades will have to vacate his work area in a short notice period. This gives an opportunity to the officers to extract money from dhobis and leads to corruption in the area. Most of this area can be found stinking with garbage and large area of dhobighat having been captured by outsiders by paying bribe to BMC offices and suppressing the rights of poor washerman. Dhobis have long history of fighting against these atrocities and more recently trying to save themselves from the eyes of powerful builders to get the land captured through by unauthorized means.
Recently, there has been a push to decide whether Lokhandwala Builders should be allowed to redevelop the century-old site under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) Project. Following a Bombay High Court-mandated referendum, washermen of Dhobi Ghat participated in a secret ballot which required 70% of the residents to give their consent. The total turnout itself fell short of that percentage so no decision could be taken.
The casting for Dhobi Ghat was very important because the actors had to be believable in their roles. Director Kiran Rao knew that casting the role of Munna would be key:
"Munna is almost the lifeblood of the film. He had to be someone with a lot of energy, someone who's risen up the ranks, who's come from a village to Bombay with big dreams.... he is for me a symbol of the city.
"To look for Munna, we actually did think of going out there and looking in the dhobi ghat. We tested boys from the dhobi ghat and we had some interesting characters but none who quite could carry off the role as big and complex as that of Munna."
Kiran Rao brought Prateik Babbar in for an audition after seeing him at the launch of the film Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na. The audition proved he was the Munna she was looking for. But more work was needed to prepare him for the role:
"For Prateik, what we had to do was prepare him to be someone from a class that he's totally not from. We wanted him to get familiar with the life of someone who wakes up at 5 in the morning and has to wash clothes til 12 ... hang, iron, you know ... then go and deliver clothes. So we actually had to put him through the drill."
According to an article in the Times of India, this training gave Prateik a very interesting perspective on the life of dhobis:
"I went to real dhobi ghats and washed clothes for five hours everyday for a week. It was quite a unique experience. Now I've become an expert at the job. I can't say I enjoy doing it, but if I've no one to do my washing, I won't sit and cry."
The actor has insights into the dhobi lifestyle as well. Prateik says, "Do you know these guys wake up at 3am? And the first thing they do is swig alcohol. They are drunk the whole time while they wash. That's all they do. Wash clothes and drink."
Watch the trailer for Dhobi Ghat.
The following is a short Hindi-language documentary on Dhobi Ghat in Mahalaxmi, Mumbai the biggest open-air laundry in the world.
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