When she came to Mumbai in 1992 as an 18-year-old, all the information this Kolkata-bred girl had about the city was second-hand. Like every new visitor, she explored it and realised there was much more to the city than she had imagined. Kiran Rao was so impressed with the nuances of Mumbai that she decided to make a film about it and let the world watch it too. “You can never see the city in a day. It reveals itself through varied experiences. You have to explore it as an insider and live the life of its people and then put together the collage to really understand Mumbai,” says the young filmmaker, whose Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) released this week.
Dhobi Ghat is the story of four people: painter Arun (Aamir Khan), investment banker Shai (Monica Dogra) who is on a sabbatical, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a shy Muslim woman taking note of the city with an amateur video camera, and washerman Munna (Prateik). But apart from these four, the city of Mumbai is a full-fledged character, insists Kiran. “My film is about people of different classes meeting in this megapolis. It's not easy to sum up the story in a line or a 30-second promo like we could with Peepli Live. This story is more layered and experiential. It is the story of life and its fleeting moments. I would like people to come and watch it unfold over 95 minutes,” she says.
Kiran says that while all her characters are completely fictitious, some incidents in the film find personal resonance, especially her efforts to find accommodation. “It is a known fact that as a single person, it's very difficult to find a place to stay in the city. Arun faces the same problem. He has to shift places every now and then just like I had to!” she reminisces. Coming to selecting her cast, Kiran laughs, knowing where the question is headed. “I know it sounds mad but I really didn't want Aamir in the role of Arun. I auditioned a lot of people and a couple even came close to Arun but the character wasn't coming alive. Then he (Aamir) talked me into auditioning him and I was floored by his portrayal of Arun. As for Prateik, Monica and Kriti, they are all fresh actors and that's what I required.”
With Aamir in the picture, filming guerrilla style the way Kiran wanted was going to be difficult. How did they manage to make Aamir go incognito? “Actually we didn't. I was shooting with four cameras and Aamir had to walk twice for this one scene shot during Eid on Mohammed Ali Road. Anybody familiar with the area knows that during iftaar, that street is packed with people. It would have been impossible to shoot without the help of my crew, my action directors Ejaj and Javed. Before people could recognise Aamir and mob him, there was a sea of humanity between them and him. The ones nearer to Aamir were too engrossed in watching their step and going ahead,” she chuckles. The duo stayed in a single room in a chawl on the congested road unnoticed by people. “It was our second honeymoon on Mohammed Ali Road!”
Dhobi Ghat has been released in two versions — one with 20 per cent English between characters that speak English and the other dubbed in Hindi. “We are letting exhibitors decide what they want to pick,” says Kiran, who is comfortable wearing the serious filmmaker's hat. “Yes, this is a serious film for a more mature audience. I don't really think I will be able to make frivolous cinema ever. This one is more in the league of international art house cinema.”
Despite being Mrs Aamir Khan, Kiran has cemented herself in the minds of people as an independent woman and a director. “It hasn't been a conscious effort to come across as independent. I haven't changed myself after marriage. People are perceptive. They understand there is more to me than being Aamir's wife,” she says.
Aamir has many a time confessed to becoming a changed man after getting married to Kiran. But what changes has he brought about in her? “He has often said that he has opened up as a person after we met. I think after getting married to Aamir, I have become less self-absorbed and less judgmental. I have mellowed down and have become more giving,” says Kiran, who is now happy to ‘tag along with Aamir' to Berlin where he has been invited to be on the jury of the Berlin Film Festival.