In 1998, Kiran Rao moved to Mumbai, determined to work in the Hindi film industry. Twelve years later she is weeks away from the release of her debut film, Dhobi Ghat. Kiran started her career working on commercials and got her first break as assistant director (AD) on Lagaan. Jobs on Swades and Monsoon Wedding followed. Since then, Kiran has worked as associate producer and now director and writer. Some might say that the biggest role she has played is as wife of superstar Aamir Khan. Yet she is atypical of Bollywood star wives – right from keeping her maiden name to maintaining her individuality as a filmmaker and at red carpet events. Dhobi Ghat, starring Aamir Khan, Prateik Babbar and several newcomers, is an ‘indie’ (independent film) and reflects the undeniable influence of world cinema on Kiran’s work.
You are on the home stretch with Dhobi Ghat. How are you feeling?
This is the last burst and it is quite exciting and super hectic. Working as an AD and producer prepares you in the sense that you know what you have to do to make a film. But nothing prepares you for your first film. Till then you are watching, but now you are taking all the decisions and seeing the results of those decisions. This experience will be more special than anything that follows. I even love the flaws, they are a part of my growth, though I want to fix them and get it as right as I can. The flaws will remind you of who you were then.
You grew up in Kolkata. So what brought you to Mumbai?
I studied economics at Sophia College in Mumbai before doing my Masters in Mass Communication from Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. I returned to Mumbai to work in films. I thought it would be so easy, but I spent a lot of time working on commercials and learning what it was like to be on a set till my friend Reema Kagti called and asked if I would like to be an AD on Lagaan. That was a great way to start life in films. When I went to Jamia, I thought I wanted to be a cinematographer or photographer because I liked telling stories in pictures, but my teachers explained that if you want to tell your own stories then that is what a director does.
Did you always want to make films?
I had a very late introduction to films. We didn’t watch a lot of films while growing up in Kolkata. That was not the culture. But at Jamia I was seriously watching films. I saw a lot of classic and great European, Japanese and documentary films. I had always been into theatre in school and college and I knew I wanted to do something within the arts. Film combined many of the arts – writing, photography, storytelling etc.
What kind of films do you watch now?
Actually I don’t watch a lot of films but when I do, I like experimental, avant garde, European and world cinema. That is the language of cinema I am drawn towards. I don’t watch much Hollywood or Bollywood. But I didn’t set out to make Dhobi Ghat an arthouse film. Arthouse just happens to be the influence.
Do you and Aamir share the same taste in films?
He has also not watched many films, though he is game for a good story. He’s not picky as long as it engages him. We are different because I am fairly choosy. He once asked me to show him an example of an avant garde, aesthetic film and I picked the brilliant Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu and he fell asleep. He often teases me and says ‘Tum Fellini ki dum ho’ (you are Fellini’s tail) and I say I am happy to be. I do watch more Hindi films now, like old Guru Dutt and Dilip Kumar films that he is familiar with. So we are trying to bridge the gap.
You set out to make Dhobi Ghat guerrilla style, with unknown actors. But can a film with Aamir Khan in it be anything but high-profile and ‘big’?
Yes, the idea was to cast non-actors, shoot the film myself and go under the radar. The crew is made up of mostly newcomers who, like me, believe anything is possible. Once Aamir was cast we knew that the number of crew would have to grow a little, like additional security, makeup etc. But Aamir didn’t have a van or any of the set-ups stars usually have. In fact, his character Arun’s house is in Mohammed Ali Road, and Aamir and I lived in that house for three weeks. The clothes in Arun’s cupboard are Aamir’s clothes. It was unusual for him not to be in a five-star hotel, but he suggested staying in the flat. The first day of our shoot was a logistical challenge – shooting Aamir in the middle of Iftaari in Mohammed Ali Road. Luckily no one got hurt! Since our budget was small, we could not afford to pay Aamir but he owns the film. So I would say a big star is in a small film.
You have been trying hard to communicate its genre...
Yes, a big star being in a film changes the audience’s perception. I was keen that people know that it’s arthouse, though I am excited that people will see it. Aamir’s presence opens it up to a larger audience. It’s an emotional story with the power to connect in subtle, quiet ways.
Are you wishing for commercial success or critical acclaim?
When I started out, I thought money didn’t matter and critical acclaim was enough. But now, 10 years later, I have seen the effort that goes into making a film and I think commercial success is important just to keep cinema going and to justify why you made the film. It is important to at least earn the money spent. Of course I would be thrilled with commercial success. It would mean a vote of confidence.
In spite of being a star wife, how do you manage to keep it real?
After Lagaan, Aamir and I met on a Coke commercial in 2003/04. Since then he has known me as an independent person with my own life. He’s also very down to earth and has not changed much since he was a teenager. He is not starry at all. He can easily sleep on the floor or eat sitting on the floor. Even on my set he was not demanding. Arun’s flat had ants and no AC and he lived there happily. We share the same ideology and the same passion for cinema. We love a lot of the same things, so my lifestyle did not change much when we got married, except that I had to take care of a much larger house.
How do you retain your individual style and side-step succumbing to being a trophy wife?
Initially it was amusing to be looking in from the outside at the stuff that happens. Then I started taking a little more trouble when I went out. My life is about getting up and going to work and figuring out the next music concert I can go to. Aamir does not go out that much, and he’s also very comfortable with who I am. His loving me for who I am has made a huge difference. I did not feel the need to change or become a star wife, though I am a star’s wife. People wish I would wear a Dior gown and follow fashion dictums but that’s not me. I didn’t set out to be a model or an actor. I want to be known for my work.
It’s almost five years since you got married. How did your parents react when you first told them you were seeing Aamir Khan?
Initially they were disbelieving. When they realised I was serious, they became keen on protecting me and ensuring that I knew what I was doing. Once they spent time with him (in Bangalore), they fell in love with him and then wanted to make sure we did get married.
Most filmmakers worry about finding a producer. You are married to one. Doesn’t that take the pressure off you?
I am very lucky to have the opportunities I have. I am in a privileged position compared to many talented filmmakers out there. But I don’t think Aamir would make a film if he didn’t think it was worth it. Hopefully he will think my next is worth it too. It would be great if he likes it. I do feel less pressure because I can just lean over in bed and say, ‘My next script is ready. Do you want to hear it?’