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By Her first film may be a tribute to Mumbai but Kiran Rao is very much a Calcutta girl Pratim D. Gupta What is your first impression of Kiran after reading this? Tell
  • Published 3.12.10

Dhobi Ghat is your tribute to Mumbai. But for the first 20 years, you were a Calcutta girl…

Yes, although I wasn’t actually born in Calcutta, it was the place of my birth and it created my headspace in a way. I was in Calcutta from the year I was born, in 1973, till 1992. Around 18-19 years. My schooling was in Loreto House and I did my plus-2 in La Martinere for Girls. So I owe to Calcutta, I think, my personality in many ways. I was very much formed by the culture of Calcutta, the relationships I had there. Growing up in that city was a unique and a very, very memorable experience. I am very grateful that I grew up in Calcutta. I think it is very much part of my DNA and though Mumbai was the place I came to, to become myself as an adult, it was because Calcutta gave me such a strong base and grounding, which I wouldn’t have got anywhere else. So I feel connected to Calcutta in a very deep way.

The Dhobi Ghat postcard you sent says Mumbai became your muse, you “moved house seven times and worked on eight films and found love”…

When I came to Mumbai, I discovered that the city has a certain energy that is very compelling, very electric, you know. Very organically I felt I was a part of it. I didn’t have to make an effort… I just felt at home. It was a big thing for me because all my life I had lived in another city I was so fond of. My parents were leaving Calcutta to move to Bangalore and I wanted to live on my own and it was either Mumbai or Delhi. When I came to Mumbai it just sucked me in. I was a fan. It inspired me in many ways and I thought it had the characteristics and eccentricities of any great city. I felt it was great fodder for a story and a script.

Are the four stories of Dhobi Ghat inspired from episodes of your own life?

There are two starting points that I wrote the script with. I wanted to write something which was personal, something which I drew from my observations, from what I have read, from all my influences over the years. One of the ideas was to have a central character who has a chameleon-like personality. He’s come to the city of Mumbai to make a future. He is a dhobi who wants to become an actor. He has come, like many do, to the city of dreams with his own personal dream. In the course of his growing up in the city, he is privy to the lives of many classes of people. The story of this dhobi led me to all the other characters of Dhobi Ghat.

The other thing was about how difficult it is to get accommodation in Mumbai. I had to keep shifting house because I stayed in the city as a tenant for so many years. You have to create a home out of some new apartment which has just been vacated by someone else. I used to think what if I found something the earlier tenant left behind which connected me to that person in some way. We would be living our most intimate secrets and lives in the same space… me, the people who had come before me and the people who would come after me. A story of how people get connected by living in the same house.

Those were the two ideas that led me to the four characters and after a point they wrote themselves. I was just a medium. The story really has Mumbai as one of the characters. It has so many layers and each of our perspectives of the city is so different.

You have said that the only easy thing for you was that you could narrate your story to your producer even while going to bed! So did you and Aamir discuss many ideas before zeroing in on Dhobi Ghat?

Well, actually this is the very first idea we discussed. I didn’t narrate anything else to him ever. I had made up my mind a long time ago that I would only make a film when I have something worthwhile to say. I don’t want to make a film just because I want to make a film. I really feel filmmaking is part of my growth as an individual and as a person. And I want to do it in a way meaningful to me. I did write other stuff but I didn’t think they were worth making. Ideas, when you read them a week later, do not seem as appealing. This was one story, as I started writing, I got more drawn into. Only when I was completely ready with my first draft did I ask Aamir for time and narrated the script to him.

How did you keep all the Aamirs in separate compartments? Aamir the producer, Aamir the actor and Aamir the husband?

It’s kind of much more organic. I have never really compartmentalised his roles. And we have worked together on films before… Taare Zameen Par, Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na and even Peepli Live. So we have a certain way in which we work well together. That extended into acting. Because Dhobi Ghat was the first time I was dealing with him as a director. Not as a producer or as my boss or as my husband. We flowed into it naturally. There was no real effort from our part. Initially, of course, we did fight (laughs). I also had to get used to the fact that I was the director and he was an actor. We came to some sort of a happy mid-ground. But as professionals we work without any set boundaries. There’s a lot of mutual respect and that helps.

Was it a given that you’d cast him? Are you a fan of Aamir the actor?

I am. I am a big fan of his work. But actually I intended to make this film entirely with non-actors or with first-time actors. I wanted an entirely fresh cast. Now, when Aamir first read the script he said: “I would love to play Munna but I am too old (the dhobi’s part, played by Prateik Babbar), so this Arun character if that is the only role I can play…” I said: “Hello, you are not playing any of these parts, you are not there in the film.” I think he understood then that I was intending to keep it completely independent… a small little indie film, shot guerilla-style on the streets. There was no way I could have a big star. Now while casting, I managed to cast all other parts… non-actors and first-timers mostly… but his part I was finding it very hard to cast. I was showing him my tests and he said: “Why don’t you take my audition and see what can be done with this role… I am not asking you to cast me but you can get a feel of how this role can be played.” That was a smart move from Aamir because as soon as I saw what he could do with the role, I was not ready to settle for anyone else (laughs). It was after that audition that I gave some thought as to logistically how we could make it work and shoot with him in the most crowded parts of the city. Once we figured that out, I was really happy to have him as part of my first film.

What kind of an impact will that smart move have on the film? Your small little indie film will now be a major Aamir Khan release, his first after the mammoth 3 Idiots

There are concerns actually. I have gone to certain lengths and he too, to clarify the genre of the film. People anyway expect him to do something different. So when you say that this film is different, but all his films are different. They all in someway challenge the mainstream and yet still become commercial successes. But this one is truly an independent film. In terms of its narrative structure and the way the story is told, it’s not a traditional mainstream film. So, it will be a challenge for me. The promotions, the trailers and the images of the film the people will get to see, they will have an idea that it is not a very traditional sort of film. Having said that I do believe that the film has its ability to connect with people who are interested in a more quiet style of filmmaking.

People would be interested if they gave the film a chance. Aamir does that… he brings his very loyal, large fan base to the film. I hope a lot of them like it. We do need different kinds of cinema and Aamir has always been in the forefront, giving us something new and challenging every time.

Given how Amol Gupte and Anusha Rizvi cried foul, what was your experience with Aamir the producer? Was there ever any conflict of interest?

Actually speaking, Aamir is a really, really supportive producer. Once he hears a script, he completely puts his weight and support behind the project and wants the director’s vision to be fulfilled. And then after that he makes very sure that you get what you need and you make the film that you set out to make. He is a great guiding force in that sense. There was absolutely no conflict. In every way, whether it’s Peepli Live or Dhobi Ghat his influence has been to ensure that the project is made to the best of its potential. And in that sense he is really a dream producer. He put his entire weight behind a film on a social and political issue like Peepli Live and never changed a single thing about the film. As a director I relied on him a lot to give my film the platform that it deserved to get.

Who are your gurus of filmmaking?

Well, I guess, I have more world cinema influences because I didn’t watch a lot of films while growing up. When I was growing up in Calcutta, we went a lot more to watch theatre than films. It was also music and dance and literature. Cinematically my gurus are the people I studied in film school. Like (Andrei) Tarkovsky and (Federico) Fellini and (Yasujiro) Ozu. Afterwards my influences have been varied like Stan Brackhage, the avant garde filmmaker, and to people like Wong Kar-wai. The Dardenne Brothers are a big influence… their films are very beautifully made. I also watch a lot of animation films and documentaries. They have had an influence. In terms of Indian filmmakers, I grew up watching films by (Satyajit) Ray and (Ritwik) Ghatak and I saw Garam Hawa (M.S. Sathyu) and some films by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. But my diet has been largely non-commercial films.

What next? Will you come to shoot a film in Calcutta?

In fact, I have got an idea. I am very keen to shoot in Calcutta. It’s a city I love so much. I feel like I am a Bengali. Most people identify me as that because I don’t actually speak any south Indian language. I speak Konkani, my mother’s language. But I speak and read and write Bengali. So I have always wanted to shoot in Calcutta. I have this story that has its roots in Calcutta. I am hoping that works out. I also want to come to Calcutta before the release of Dhobi Ghat. I have a lot of memories of the city. Ashbo... film-ta shesh hoye jaak. The post-production phase is still on. Tarpor ashbo.