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Worlds Within Worlds

Having assisted directors like Mira Nair and Ashutosh Gowariker, Kiran Rao now branches out on her own with Dhobi Ghat. Rao is busy not only promoting her maiden venture but also with nephew Imran Khan’s wedding. Amid the hullabaloo, the debutante manages to take time out to speak about her new vocation and pet project, Dhobi Ghat. Over to her

Who was the first person you narrated your script to?
I narrated the script to Aamir and Mansoor (Khan) in Coonoor. That was in October 2005. They really liked it and thought it was a very unusual story. Aamir had tears in his eyes by the end of it. That boosted my confidence.

Did Aamir give you any creative inputs?
I sought his help for my second draft. He kind of helped me go back to the ideas I had in the first draft and pointed out a few things I needed to change.

Apart from being an actor, Aamir is known for his business acumen. What about you?
I am not very business-minded and I don’t understand the film business as well as I should. I have a sense that the subject I wrote is not mainstream and therefore it needed to be made on a very small budget. Beyond the economic feasibility of the project, I don’t know much.

While penning the script, did you keep the budget in mind?
No, I didn’t! I wrote the film without knowing what it would be like or how it would shape up. When I began writing it, I did not even know how the story would end. It developed as I wrote it. It was only when I finished writing the script that I could gauge the film’s potential.

You could have had big names associated with your film…
Well, the kind of subject, the narrative style and the style in which I wanted to direct the film were very different. I want to make it very realistic, one that gave a slice of reality and of the lives of people in the city of Mumbai. I felt it would be very hard for me to get that kind of authenticity. That’s why I was keen on a fresh cast and people who carried no memories or identity baggage.

Aamir plays a painter in the film. Honestly, did you think of casting Salman because he paints in real life…
(Laughs). Leave alone Salman; I hadn’t thought of casting Aamir! I felt I wanted newcomers who did not have a big fan following. I finally cast Aamir after a lot of thought, research and debate. It would have been nice to have a real painter like Salman in the film, though.

The film was completed long ago. What made you put its theatrical release on hold?
We finished the film in August last year and were very happy with the way it had shaped up. We wanted to figure out what our campaign should be, what the promos should be like and the final poster. And we wanted to go to the Toronoto Film Festival, while we were already committed to the London Film Festival. The Toronto festival gave us the opportunity to watch the film with the audience and figure out if we needed to tweak it. We then decided we would release the film in the next six months.

Do you believe that screening a film at international film festivals enhances the product?
Screening a film at international festivals does not make a difference here, boxoffice-wise. It only gives one good exposure to a different type of audience and a different type of appreciation for the film. I think that is good for films suited to a world-cinema audience or festival audience. I received an interesting response as that was my ideal audience, one which is interested in watching films like these.

What kind of reaction are you expecting from the audience here?
I have no idea what to expect (Laughs) and I can’t wait to see their reaction. Dhobi Ghat is a niche-audience film. People who can connect with its content and are able to understand it will appreciate it immediately. Also, it’s a non-linear form of storytelling. I am hoping that the audience understands the layers. People here watch all types of films now, even if they are not, the typical audience that would appreciate a film like this. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice – you may or may not like it. Our audience has the understanding and sensitivity to appreciate it if they are willing to try a new taste. It is like trying a new dish and developing taste for it. This is a first. So it will open the audience to a new kind of cinema.

As the release date approaches, are you nervous?
Very nervous! I am waiting for January 21 to come and go so that I can get over it! I will know once and for all ke kya ho raha hai. This wait-and-watch phase is very difficult and there’s also a wedding in the family. I am on edge.

What are you thinking about right now?
Right now I am only thinking about the shaadi (Imran Khan and Avantika Malik’s wedding). (Laughs)

Okay, what inspired the story of Dhobi Ghat?
I wanted to make a film on the multiple cities within Mumbai. How the city has so many different worlds within it – the various facets of the city. It is almost like living in different cities of the country. I wanted to show the different aspects of this multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-racial city and how inter-dependent they are and what happens when these different worlds come together. That was my main inspiration – to bring together the different phases of the city, which I have experienced and not experienced and only imagined.

Do you feel every writer should direct their own film?
There is definitely space for people to only write or only direct. It depends on the kind of person you are and the subject that appeals to you. Writing is a skill and craft of its own and so is filmmaking. So I don’t necessarily think that someone who is great at writing will make a good director and vice-versa. There are certain people who like doing both. I enjoy writing and directing as well, but there are no rules.

Which is tougher – writing or directing?
I found writing more difficult because I had less experience doing it. I have never really written a script before. Even though I have never directed anything before, it was easier because I had worked on so many films and commercials. I have worked with Ashuji (Ashutosh Gowariker)… Mira Nair… Working as an assistant director for so many years helped a lot. I learnt how to deal with the cast. I learnt how to manage things on-location. It taught me the value of pre-planning and postproduction. I have picked up different things from different people. I have had the experience of getting on the sets and feeling confident. I was confident that I could direct a film. Writing a script was a new experience even though I have been writing essays and poetry for myself for many years. A script is a structured, formatted and complex thing to write, and you have to be visually imaginative. I had to hone all these things while I was writing. That was tough.

Did you make changes in the script while shooting the film?
For some scenes, I felt I had to rewrite the lines. But by and large I stuck to my script.

What is it like working with Aamir?
It was great directing Aamir. It was a huge learning experience for me. All of us were newcomers including my cinematographer. For us to have someone who was so experienced made us feel very confident and secure. He is a great team player and we really enjoyed the experience. I felt very safe with him there as an actor on the sets.

Has Aamir’s association with the film made things easier for you?
Yes, definitely. We cannot deny the fact that he brings with him a lot of goodwill and a huge number of fans who love and are loyal to his cinema. His loyal fan base assures us of one thing at least – recovering costs at the box office. If Aamir had not been in the film, I don’t think I would have had such a big release and the media would show this interest in the film.

Is there any special memory etched in your mind?
Shooting with Aamir at Masjid Bunder was the most memorable experience for me. We stayed in a one-room apartment in the middle of the most congested part of Mumbai for three weeks. It was a big adventure and I really enjoyed the days we were there.

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