Repping India’s new-style indie, debuting writer-helmer Kiran Rao’s “Mumbai Diaries” is a refreshingly modest affair despite having been produced by Rao’s husband, Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, here in a featured role. This tale of four Mumbai dwellers at a crossroads in their lives owes more to Taiwanese or French auteur cinema than to Satyajit Ray. Since King Khan (be it Aamir, Salman or Shah Rukh) rules at the Indian box office, the wistful drama is assured of multiplex exposure at home, with offshore viewing likely strongest in fests and ancillary.
In Mumbai on sabbatical, lively American investment banker Shai (musician Monica Dogra) enjoys a one-night stand with loner artist Arun (an understated Khan) who makes it clear he’s not looking for a relationship. Needing a guide to the world of local workers that she is supposed to be researching, Shai befriends her family’s charismatic dhobi (laundry boy) Munna (the mono-monikered Prateik), who also works for Arun. Meanwhile, Arun moves to another apartment where he becomes engrossed in the video diaries left by previous tenant Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra).
Already an experienced producer (“Peepli Live”), Rao makes a smooth segue into writing and directing, sensitively tapping into the diverse energies of India’s most populous city and subtly capturing nuances of caste and class. Traversing swank galleries and luxury apartments as well as criminal-infested slums, she etches a city that, like its characters, is in transition.
Perhaps most notable for the new talent in front of and behind the camera, the film marks the debut of the two main actresses who acquit themselves nicely, as well the first leading role for the immensely appealing Prateik who seems destined to be a big star.
Working in Super 16 and mini-DV, cinematographer Tushar Kanti Ray clearly differentiates the different Mumbais inhabited by Shai, Arun and Munna, and the city as seen through Yasmin’s eyes. Likewise, production designer Manisha Khandelwal makes palpable the many diverse interiors.
Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla provides a discreet, somewhat generic score. On the debit side, the editing could be tighter.
The striking black-and-white still photos supposedly shot by Shai comes from award-winning photographer Jyotika Jain.